Zooming in on pharmaceutical pollution in Malaysia

Pharmaceutical pollution in Malaysia has often been neglected.

The pharmaceutical industry in the country is controlled by the Drug Control Authority (DCA), an agency under the Health Ministry, with the National Pharmaceutical Regulatory Agency (NPRA) as the secretariat and technical body.

The DCA’s executive and legal role, as provided for under the Control of Drugs and Cosmetics Regulation 1984, is to ensure that every pharmaceutical product marketed in the country is safe, and of sound quality. The NPRA provides technical support by testing the pharmaceutical products’ quality, and safety.

Malaysia’s core legislation on the environment is the Environmental Quality Act 1974. There are, however, no laws that specifically target pharmaceutical pollution.

Many Malaysians still use groundwater sources, with those in Kelantan, Terengganu, Kedah, Perlis, Pahang, Sabah, and Sarawak being the highest users of groundwater as a source of drinking water.

But the federal government has been keen to tap into groundwater as a viable alternative source for the nation as a whole.

If this is implemented, Malaysians might be at a heightened risk of groundwater contamination if pharmaceutical pollution isn’t tackled effectively.

Already in what could be deemed as a “rare” finding as contained in the paper “Detecting Human Pharmaceutical Pollutants in Malaysian Aquatic Environment: A new challenge for water quality management”, results show that Sungai Langat has been polluted by active pharmaceutical ingredients (APIs), and sewage treatment does not totally remove these pollutants.

Mefenamic acid, salicylic acid and glibenclamide are the most common pharmaceutical residues found in Sungai Langat.

The ineffectiveness of our conventional sewage treatment plants (STPs) is confirmed by Dr Nurfaizah Abu Tahrim from Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia. Our STPs are not designed to treat pharmaceutical waste.

EMIR Research recommended that due attention be afforded to upgrading STPs to ensure that they deploy the latest waste removal technology – natural and industrial – such as solar photolysis (conversion of photon energy comprising of waves of electromagnetic radiation by which the contaminants are exposed to – a process of irradiation) and advanced oxidation processes, which specifically targets pharmaceutical based/driven pollution.

The government at all three levels (federal, state, local) should be more committed to tackle river and landfill pollution by rigorously and uncompromisingly enforcing the legislation (primary) and regulations (secondary) on the pharmaceutical industry.

Regular inspections and audits should be carried out at all three levels, and these activities should be coordinated and synchronised, accordingly.

At the same time, the pharmaceutical industry should be assessed by private auditors in compliance to environmental, social, and governance values.

Independent, non-executive directors should be empowered and trained to scrutinise and monitor pharmaceutical polluting activities.

At the micro-level, every pharmacist, medicine administrator in hospitals and clinics, and pharmacies should educate and inform patients to dispose of expired or unused drugs properly. This will prevent patients from disposing of the prescribed and non-prescribed drugs improperly.

This is to prevent pharmaceutical wastes from contaminating the STPs – as a pre-emptive and precautionary measure. – The Health

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