£7 million project will study effects of medicines on waste water

17 April 2013

£7 million project will study effects of medicines on waste water

Water testing equipment at GCU

Researchers at Glasgow Caledonian University (GCU) have begun a £7 million study to raise awareness of the presence of pharmaceutical residues in waste water and explore new methods of reducing them.

The concentrations in water are very low and are not thought to be harmful to human health though there are some concerns over the effects these residues may have on water habitats and aquatic life.   

The European Union funded research project ‘noPILLS’ – which receives its Scottish launch at GCU on Wednesday, April 17 – will focus on raising awareness of the residue medicines and other pharmaceutical products leave in water when they pass through the human body, or are washed off.

It will use mobile applications, among other methods, to communicate the impact of pharmaceutical consumption and disposal habits.

GCU’s Dr Ole Pahl, an environmental engineer from GCU’s School of Engineering and Built Environment and Institute for Sustainable Engineering and Technology Research, will lead the ‘noPILLS’ team in Scotland.

He said: “The project addresses the need to reduce pharmaceutical and other micro-pollutants in the water cycle. It will investigate whether, and how, pharmaceutical product input may be reduced by raising awareness, encouraging different consumption or prescription practices, and promoting better disposal.”

GCU’s interdisciplinary ‘noPILLS’ team will collaborate with four partners across Europe, including water companies and universities, over a number of different activities linked by the project.

The GCU team - including experts in engineering, life sciences, computer applications and social sciences - will:

  • Work on detecting pharmaceuticals and their biological effects in a field study area in central Scotland.
  • Discover if, and under which circumstances, people may be most willing to consider a change in their pharmaceutical consumption and disposal habits.
  • Build mobile applications that will communicate information on pharmaceutical residues and their impact on the quality of the water in an easy to understand, visually appealing and engaging way.
  • Investigate the toxic effects of single and mixed pharmaceuticals on aquatic life, as these are still not fully known.
  • Further investigate a method of removing pharmaceutical residue from water – called ferrate treatment – which was developed as part of an earlier study.

“NoPILLS” has an overall budget of almost £7 million (Euros 9 million), with the GCU team’s work accounting for £2 million of that total.

It will be officially launched at an event being held to communicate the findings of an earlier project - ‘Pharmaceutical Input and Elimination from Local Sources’ (PILLS). This study, also with European partners, ended last year and investigated various methods of removing pharmaceutical waste from waste water when it leaves hospitals.

GCU’s Karin Helwig, a GCU researcher who has worked on both projects, said:

“We want to feed into the public European debate on how much benefit can be achieved by avoiding, reducing or substituting some compounds. There is an opportunity to enlighten the public on what consumer behaviour means for the development of waste water treatment costs and biodiversity. Over time, this may lead to changing prescription and consumption patterns and start an increased demand for ‘green pharmacy’.”

Professor Lynne Baillie, who will lead the technology-focused part of the group, said:

“We will build innovative mobile applications that will aim to communicate to people in an engaging way how they can reduce the levels of pharmaceutical product entering the waste water system by encouraging different methods of consumption or promoting better disposal.”


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