Illustrating the fate of pharmaceuticals

Posted on 1st February 2013

New work from data visualisation expert Dr Will Stahl-Timmins is helping academics to understand the fate of pharmaceuticals in the environment.

Featured in the journal Science this week, the information graphic depicts the complex system of pharmaceutical transport around the areas in which we live.

It also shows how drug use can be influenced by factors such as promotion and academic endorsement, and suggests points at which action could be taken to reduce the amount of drugs entering the environment and lessen their impact.

There have been growing concerns about the presence of pharmaceuticals in the environment, particularly as evidence emerges of the effects they can have on the development of plants, animals and antibiotic resistance in bacteria.

The graphic has been developed with the input of Dr Clare Redshaw and Dr Mathew White. As specialists in environmental chemistry and environmental psychology respectively, their discussions about how to tackle the problem of drugs in the environment quickly highlighted some important issues in communication.

Dr Clare Redshaw explains “We realised that between us there was the need for a common language and building this graphic has allowed us to communicate across disciplines in a way that we haven’t been able to do before. Previous pharmaceutical transport and fate diagrams have all tended to begin at the household. By incorporating upstream sources this graphic allows us to create a unique multidisciplinary view, which accounts for psychological, biological, chemical and physical processes.”

As the process of building the ‘Pharma Transport Town’ developed, Dr Stahl-Timmins’ depiction of the circulation of drugs in our environment evolved through 149 iterations. But that process, says Stahl-Timmins, is just as important as the finished article.

“The end use of this cityscape is designed to draw the viewer into the graphic, encouraging them to explore the connections, alongside their own role and responsibility for the sustainable use of pharmaceuticals. But we’ve found that making an information graphic is also a really good way of getting different disciplines to collaborate – to share their information and understand each other better.”

Read more about this graphic and the pharmaceutical visualisation project here.

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