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Pharmaceutical water systems are crucial to the development of the drugs and vaccines humanity needs to safeguard public health. But aspects such as wastewater treatment, effluent disposal, and purified water systems bring their own challenges to the pharmaceutical industry.

What are the unique challenges in this industry, and how are critical obstacles being overcome? Read on to learn more.

Technical Difficulties in Dealing with Pharmaceutical Wastewater

The makeup of pharmaceutical wastewater is very different from that of standard municipal or industrial wastewater. It is characterized by a high level of chemical oxygen demand, as well as significant fluctuations in flow. This makes it very difficult to treat pharma waste in the same facilities and plants used to treat other forms of wastewater — attempting to treat pharma waste together with other forms en masse results in the release of dangerous compounds.

So, how is pharmaceutical water system effluent treated adequately? To achieve this, a specialized solution is required — one that can cope with the fluctuations in flow and density discussed above. Scientists in Israel have identified a moving bed biological reactor (MBBR) as an effective solution in this case, deploying layers of biomass that can absorb and remove pharma contaminants. This material was chosen because it is able to recover quickly following “toxic events,” ensuring a uniform level of protection and treatment at all times.

This is just one solution, of course, but it demonstrates how important it is for facility developers and industry bodies to create innovative, forward-thinking, and highly effective treatments for pharma wastewater. As pharma production grows increasingly sophisticated, the associated wastewater treatment processes need to follow suit.

Increased Pathogen Risks

All forms of wastewater carry a pathogen risk — the danger that harmful compounds and bacteria may be transmitted to humans and animals in the local area. However, research suggests that this risk could be even greater in relation to pharma wastewater. This is because pharmaceutical water system byproducts add a significant amount of harmful content to the mix — including pathogenic microorganisms, pharma residues, and a range of chemicals. This is on top of the salts, metals, and organic compounds commonly found in wastewater.

For pharma production facilities that are in areas of high population — such as in town and city centers — or where pharma wastewater is used to irrigate fields and areas of agriculture, this is a particular problem. Instances of infection and disease are more frequent in these locations.

Damage on a Global Scale

The COVID-19 pandemic thrust issues regarding global healthcare trends and the pharmaceutical industry across the world. In the current climate, and as we look toward the recovery phase from the coronavirus, it has become clear that healthcare and pharma are truly worldwide concerns. Collaboration and communication are needed if we are to meet the challenges our global society faces.

With this in mind, we need to consider the challenges of the pharma industry on an international scale. We need to think about the damage that unregulated industry can cause not just here in the United States but also elsewhere across the world. All pharma production facilities are part of the same international supply chain, and so all need to take responsibility and ownership of issues.

Reports suggest that around half of the wastewater produced by the global pharmaceuticals industry is released into local water tables without being processed. This includes water used to wash solid cake, clean and maintain equipment, and extract useful compounds. Typically, this water is released in high volumes, with potentially catastrophic effects on the local community and environment. A global set of standards is required to curtail this irresponsible water usage — in a worldwide market, leaving wastewater regulation up to local and domestic authorities is simply not enough.

Antibiotic Resistance

Antibiotic resistance is a serious concern in the wastewater industry in general. Studies conducted at municipal wastewater treatment plants in California have found that residual antibiotics in waste — consumed by humans but left unmetabolized when passing through the body — enabled microbes to build up a resistance. This resistance can then spread into the areas surrounding wastewater treatment plants, putting human communities and livestock in danger.

This danger could be accelerated by pharmaceutical industry wastewater, compounding an already grave situation. If pharma producers and other similar companies release antibiotics into the local water table, microorganisms can quickly develop a resistance. The result of this is a world in which antimicrobial drugs no longer work, and communities are put in serious danger of disease and even death. In 2019, studies suggested that antibiotic resistance was already killing more people worldwide than HIV/AIDS or malaria, and the picture is growing increasingly grave with each passing year. How antibiotic materials are handled and disposed of is one of the most pressing questions facing the pharma industry today.

Managing the Cost of Handling Wastewater

Handling pharmaceutical water systems and dealing with the wastewater these systems produce can be a costly exercise. At each stage of the process, from the purified water system in the pharmaceutical industry’s manufacturing process to the disposal of water used in cleaning equipment, significant care and attention are required to ensure water is handled properly. However, this results in high operational expenses.

These costs cannot be avoided, but they can be mitigated to an extent. One of the key challenges for pharma producers moving forward is how to balance these costs without compromising on safety and sustainability. Innovative technology, such as the MBBR tech discussed above, can improve the water treatment process while supporting the right level of efficiency for the plant. Of course, these technologies must be developed and tested themselves, which brings its own costs into the equation.

To put it simply, the future of public health depends on pharmaceutical companies. But this does not mean pharma producers should be allowed to endanger other areas of public well-being as they develop their drugs and vaccines. A responsible attitude and meaningful change in how water is handled are necessary if we are to protect our planet and its inhabitants for generations to come.