Visualising the complex fate of pharmaceuticals

By visualising the complex processes and systems through which pharmaceuticals enter the environment, this project is aiming to enable key stakeholders to consider the transport and ultimate fate of pharmaceuticals in a holistic manner.

There are growing concerns about the ubiquitous presence of pharmaceuticals in the environment, especially given the dramatic impacts individual drugs and mixtures can have upon biota – such as antibiotic resistance and endocrine disruption.

As populations age and generic medicines become readily available, pharmaceutical usage is predicted to rise – and it is essential that we begin to take steps towards limiting environmental contamination.

There are complex processes and systems through which pharmaceuticals enter the environment, including waste disposal, water treatment, leaks and spills. There are also largely unknown pathways through which humans are unintentionally exposed to these environmental contaminants, including water abstraction, crop uptake, and via veterinary use in livestock.

Drawing on experience in ecotoxicology, analytical chemistry, epidemiology, environmental psychology and information design, this project has so far led to the creation of a detailed information graphic that represents the complex mechanisms involved in pharmaceutical transport.

The visual model was published in 2013 in Science after winning a major international visualisation award. To explain the cycle of environmental pharmaceutical transport, the graphic uses the visual metaphor of a town. This familiar setting aims to provide relevance to the many stakeholders in the complex system depicted.

As this project evolves it will develop other innovative communication techniques to target different audiences, and research their impacts.

Ultimately the authors are hoping to drive the development of new, sustainable pharmaceutical products and usage patterns.

Learn more about how the graphic was built on Dr Will Stahl-Timmins’s blog