Pharmaceuticals in the aquatic environments: Evidence of emerged threat and future challenges for marine organisms

Mar Environ Res. 2018 Sep:140:41-60. doi: 10.1016/j.marenvres.2018.05.001. Epub 2018 May 14.


Pharmaceuticals are nowadays recognized as a threat for aquatic ecosystems. The growing consumption of these compounds and the enhancement of human health in the past two decades have been paralleled by the continuous input of such biologically active molecules in natural environments. Waste water treatment plants (WWTPs) have been identified as a major route for release of pharmaceuticals in aquatic bodies where concentrations ranging from ng/L to μg/L are ubiquitously detected. Since medicines principles are designed to be effective at very low concentrations, they have the potential to interfere with biochemical and physiological processes of aquatic species over their entire life cycle. Investigations on occurrence, bioaccumulation and effects in non target organisms are fragmentary, particularly for marine ecosystems, and related to only a limited number over the 4000 substances classified as pharmaceuticals: hence, there is a urgent need to prioritize the environmental sustainability of the most relevant compounds. The aim of this review is to summarize the main adverse effects documented for marine species exposed in both field and laboratory conditions to different classes of pharmaceuticals including non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs, psychiatric, cardiovascular, hypocholesterolaemic drugs, steroid hormones and antibiotics. Despite a great scientific advancement has been achieved, our knowledge is still limited on pharmaceuticals behavior in chemical mixtures, as well as their interactions with other environmental stressors. Complex ecotoxicological effects are increasingly documented and multidisciplinary, integrated approaches will be helpful to clarify the environmental hazard of these "emerged" pollutants in marine environment.

Keywords: Aquatic environments; Bioaccumulation; Biomarkers; Environmental risk; Non target species; Pharmaceuticals; Sources.

MeSH terms

  • Aquatic Organisms / physiology*
  • Ecosystem
  • Ecotoxicology
  • Environmental Monitoring*
  • Pharmaceutical Preparations / analysis*
  • Water Pollutants, Chemical / analysis*


  • Pharmaceutical Preparations
  • Water Pollutants, Chemical