Andhra Pradesh's killer pharma industry

The pharmaceutical industry is booming in the environs of Hyderabad. But poor regulation means local people are having to pay the price of pollution. s v suresh babu and kushal pal singh yadav test the waters

Published: Wednesday 31 October 2007

Andhra Pradesh's killer pharma industry

Down to EarthThe antibiotics we consume are now being found in effluents discharged by industrial estates in Andhra Pradesh. Shockingly, the quantities are not minuscule. Researchers who collected samples and then analysed them say the amount of antibiotics they detected has never been reported anywhere else in the world. These industrial estates produce the bulk drugs that go into the medicines we take. It is important to note that these antibiotics are supplied the world over.

In effect, the business of pollution is outsourced--the biggest industries in the rich world outsource their production to the big manufacturers in the poor world. In the same way, the big players in the poor world outsource their dirty production to the small producer.

The cost of pollution is not paid either by the pharma company or the consumers of the drugs. It is paid by the people who live in the areas where drugs are manufactured.The price is high but it is not calculated because nobody has calculated the impact of this contamination on people who live near industrial estates.

Down to EarthThe study
In a recent study, 'Effluent from drug manufactures contains extremely high levels of pharmaceuticals', published in the Journal of Hazardous Materials (Volume 148, July 2007), researchers screened samples of effluents from a common effluent-treatment plant (cetp) in Patancheru in Medak district, Andhra Pradesh, for 59 drugs. "Initial screening suggested that 21 of these were present at concentrations above 1 microgramme per litre (g/l). An independent, quantitative analysis in our laboratory of the nine tentatively most abundant drugs and two additional antibiotics confirmed the findings.... All 11 drugs were detected at levels >100 g/l. To the best of our knowledge, the concentrations of these 11 drugs were all above the previously highest values reported in any sewage effluent," says the paper. The maximum concentration was that of the antibiotic ciprofloxacin 28,000-31,000 g/l (see table Drug cocktail). This corresponds to approximately 45 kg of active pharmaceutical ingredients per day, the equivalent of the total amount consumed by the Swedish population (nine million) over a five-day period reports the study conducted by the researchers from the Sweden-based Gteborg University (see box Antibiotic research).

Patancheru Enviro-Tech Limited (petl), the company that runs the cetp, says it is not aware of the findings published by the Swedish scientists. "I am not aware of such a study. The tests done to check for chemical oxygen demand (cod; which are mandatory) will also detect pollution by antibiotics, if any, in the effluent. That is enough," V R Akella, executive vice-president, petl, told Down To Earth (DTE). He does not mention that there are no standards for antibiotics in effluents. Neither companies nor regulators check for the presence of these contaminants.

It is also a fact that the cod does not identify different chemical contaminants, which would have different levels of toxicity. The presence of antibiotics in effluents is, therefore, not part of the pollution management story of the estate. It is only a by-product, which is unaccounted by regulation and unseen by regulators. Rajeshwar Tiwari, member-secretary, Andhra Pradesh Pollution Control Board (appcb), admitted he was unaware of the study, but said "We will look into the study and initiate necessary action."

On the other hand, Kishan Rao, a doctor in Patancheru involved in the fight against pollution, was disturbed. "This kind of exposure will lead to antibiotic resistance among members of the local community. All vital organs will be affected due to excessive exposure to antibiotics," he said.

It's not just that there are no standards for antibiotics, the regulation of other contaminants is so lax compared to industrialised countries that there is little hope of being able to screen antibiotics through them. In the industrialized world, industries have to invest in expensive equipment to get rid of tiny toxins. It is for this reason that drug manufacturing is very expensive in the industrialised world. There people have money to buy antibiotics, but no money to invest in pollution control. Crucial to understanding the global pharmaceutical industry is recognising its chain of outsourcing.

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