Royal Pharmaceutical Society

Impact of climate change on health and medicines

By Alwyn Fortune, Policy and Engagement Lead for RPS in Walesportrait of Alwyn Fortune, Policy and Engagement Lead in Wales

The alarming reality of climate change has become a truth that we can no longer ignore. The latest report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate issued a dire warning, with the UN Secretary-General emphasizing that the ticking climate time bomb could lead to devastating consequences for both humanity and our planet if global warming surpasses 1.5 degrees Celsius.

As the world grapples with this monumental threat, it's crucial to recognise that climate change is not solely an environmental concern but, in fact, the most significant health threat modern society has ever encountered. Its impact on clean air, safe drinking water, food security, and shelter creates a chain reaction of adverse effects on human health.

Scale of impact and the role of pharmacy

The consequences of environmental changes are becoming apparent, with a rise in respiratory and cardiovascular diseases, water-borne illnesses, and even an increase in pandemics.

The World Health Organisation has gone so far as to label climate change as the greatest threat to global health in the 21st century, demanding immediate action.

The NHS itself contributes approximately 4-5% of total carbon emissions, with medicines alone accounting for a staggering 25% of the NHS's carbon footprint. This combination of rising healthcare demands, medicine consumption, and environmental impact underlines the critical role that pharmacy can play in combating this crisis.

Steps for pharmacy teams to reduce medicines' environmental impact

To help tackle this grave situation, we’ve outlined actionable steps that pharmacy teams can take to reduce the environmental harm caused by medicines. Collaboratively, pharmacy teams, the healthcare sector, and the pharmaceutical industry are implementing a range of changes, including:

  • Sustainable medicine development: Prioritising sustainability in the development and production of medicines to reduce their environmental footprint.
  • Reducing demand for medicines: Exploring alternatives and treatments that do not necessarily rely on medicines.
  • Recommending low carbon medicines: Developing tools to facilitate discussions with patients about low carbon alternatives when prescribing medicines.
  • Reducing medicine waste: Implementing strategies to recycle medicines and their packaging, while also helping people to take their medicines as prescribed to get the most benefit and to avoid waste.
  • Inhaler environmental impact: Reviewing patient inhaler technique, frequency of use, and, if appropriate, transitioning patients to lower carbon inhalers to minimise environmental impact.

What individuals can do to play their part

However, it's not just the healthcare sector that can make a difference; we can all play our part in making medicines more environmentally friendly. Here are some practical steps to take:

  • Order only what you need: When requesting a repeat prescription, only order the items you currently need to avoid generating unnecessary waste.
  • No longer using a medicine? Talk to your pharmacist or your doctor for advice on the best choices for you.
  • Responsible disposal: Return any unused medicines to your local community pharmacy for safe and eco-friendly disposal.
  • Embrace healthy lifestyle choices: Take active measures to prevent illnesses like heart disease or diabetes through lifestyle changes, reducing the likelihood of relying on medicines.

It's crucial to recognize that small individual actions, collectively embraced, can have a profound impact on reducing the environmental harm caused by medicines. By working together, we can combat climate change and secure a healthier future for ourselves and our planet.

Take action and with our Climate Change Charter.

Read our policies on sustainability.

Read more RPS blogs.


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