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Communication Strategies for Reducing Agriculture-related Entry of Veterinary Pharmaceuticals into the Environment

Communication Strategies for Reducing Agriculture-related Entry of Veterinary Pharmaceuticals into the Environment

Residues of veterinary medicines (VETs) can increasingly be detected in soil and water and have gained attention in scientific and public debate. The aim of this project is the creation of information and teaching material for veterinarians and farmers in order to raise awareness about the prevention of the entry of VETs in the environment.

Pathways and environmental impacts of veterinary drugs

As with human medicines, veterinary drugs are only partly absorbed by the animal body. Significant portions of the drug are excreted unchanged or as metabolites – this amount is between 40-90% for the group of antibiotics (Winckler et al, 2004; Kemper 2008). The biologically active substances can reach the environment if animal faeces are applied as fertiliser on agricultural land, for example.

Veterinary medicinal products in the environment can be: partly degraded; partly absorbed to organic and inorganic matter; or transported to surface water bodies in dissolved as well as adsorbed form. From the agricultural land, animal drugs and their metabolites can seep through the unsaturated soil zone into the groundwater or pass through drainage or surface runoff into surface waters, where they can have an impact on aquatic organisms. Their biological activity can also have consequences for soil organisms, which in turn can result in adverse effects on soil functions.

Due to generally long residence times of groundwater, the impact of veterinary drugs in the environment is visible only with delay. This also accounts for the effect of measures to reduce the discharge of pharmaceuticals. However, the role of soils is not yet the focus of scientific considerations, though  some studies indicate that certain substances can accumulate in the soil, such as tetracyclines and macroclides (Engels, 2005; Winckler et al., 2004). Thus, it is uncertain how the decades-long record of animal medicines in soil ecosystems may affect food production and food safety. In addition to the impacts on soil, groundwater and surface water and the ecotoxicological risks for animals, plants and microorganisms, the quality of raw and drinking water could be affected.

Communication of risks arising from veterinary medicines in the environment

Environmental effects of veterinary pharmaceuticals are a complex issue and for many players the appropriate actions to take are not obvious. Furthermore, knowledge gaps and research needs exist. Hence, measured claims are justified by minimising risk and through the precautionary principle. Environmental effects of veterinary medicines are currently rarely addressed in the education and training of veterinarians and farmers. There is little information and training materials for these target groups which provide background information about this topic. The same is true for alternatives to the use of animal medicines and alternative disposal and recycling of excreta that contain residues of veterinary drugs and resistant microorganisms.

Aim of the project

As part of the previous study, an overview of concepts and measures for the reduction of veterinary pharmaceuticals in the environment was developed and discussed with the interested public in a workshop. The workshop participants stressed the need for communication activities addressed to farmers and veterinarians to reduce the entry of veterinary medicinal products in the environment.
This project responds to the expressed need and focuses on the development of target group-specific information products for veterinarians and farmers explaining the relevance of veterinary drugs in the environment and identifying possible options for action. It aims to illustrate the effects and side effects of their actions, so that a problem awareness of the potential environmental impact is created. In this way, these professionals are made aware of an environmentally friendly handling of veterinary medicinal products and they are increasingly willing to consider alternative measures for sustaining the health of individual animals and animal populations.

Methodology of the project

First, the state of knowledge on the environmental impacts of veterinary pharmaceuticals is researched. Subsequently, selected information and teaching material on the use of veterinary drugs for veterinarians and farmers will be analysed. Special focus will be given to examining whether and how the material addresses environmental aspects and antimicrobial resistance. Based on this communication analysis, an overarching communication strategy and concepts and contents for the following information products can be developed:

  • Information brochures for veterinarians and farmers,
  • educational materials for veterinarians and farmers in training and practice,
  • online platform within www.uba.de

The content of the draft information products are discussed at a workshop with the professional public representing the target groups.

Tasks of Ecologic Institute

Ecologic Institute leads the project and is responsible for communication analysis, the preparation of information brochures and the online platform. Another focal point for Ecologic Institute is the target group-specific editing and visualisation of information.


Engels, H. (2005). Verhalten von ausgewählten Tetrazyklinen und Sulfonamiden in Wirtschaftsdünger und in Böden. Cuvillier Verlag.
Kemper, N. (2008). Veterinary antibiotics in the aquatic and terrestrial environment. Ecological Indicators, 8(1), 1–13. http://doi.org/10.1016/j.ecolind.2007.06.002
Winckler, C., Engels, H., Hund-Rinke, K., Luckow, T., Simon, M., & Steffens, G. (2004). Verhalten von Tetrazyklinen und anderen Veterinärantibiotika in Wirtschaftsdünger und Boden: Wirkung von Tetrazyklinen und anderen Tierarzneimitteln auf die Bodenfunktion (Texte No. 44/04) (S. 157). Berlin: Umweltbundesamt.