Transition towards sustainable pharmacy? The influence of public debates on policy responses to pharmaceutical contaminants in water

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Background: Despite clear-cut scientific evidence for pharmaceutical contaminants causing adverse effects in aquatic life, the regulatory response in Germany has been weak. In principle, there are different policy approaches to address pharmaceutical contaminants: German water protection policies mostly follows a control approach, complemented by end-of-pipe solutions in some German states. The approach leaves the activities of key target groups, such as the pharmaceutical industry, largely unaffected. A stakeholder consultation initiated in 2016 by the German Federal Ministry of the Environment did not lead to significant changes in regulation. Empirical research in political science has shown that analysing the public debate can be helpful in explaining policy responses and, in particular, policy change. This study follows this approach and investigates whether the German policy response to pharmaceutical contaminants can be explained by characteristics of the public debate on the issue. Results: A discourse network analysis based on newspaper reporting in Germany was conducted between 2013 and 2017 to investigate the public debate on pharmaceutical contaminants. German newspapers actually paid considerable attention to the issue. In fact, the debate was not controversial, and participating organisations expressed similar views with regard to the risk of the contaminants, the causes of contamination and the approaches to be taken to mitigate the release of contaminants to the environment. The main narrative in the debate was supportive to the current policy approach applied in Germany. There were no concerted efforts by organisations such as environmental organisations or ecological parties to mobilise for an alternative policy approach. Conclusions: The low level of polarisation in the policy subsystem and the absence of a strong narrative mobilising a major policy change may explain the persistence of the policy approach to pharmaceutical contaminants applied in Germany. A significant change to the current approach in the near future seems unlikely. Nevertheless, literature in political science shows that a polarised public debate and a strong pro-change actor coalition often preceded policy change. Actors with an interest in stricter regulation might want to reconsider their mobilisation strategies.




Schaub, S., & Braunbeck, T. (2020). Transition towards sustainable pharmacy? The influence of public debates on policy responses to pharmaceutical contaminants in water. Environmental Sciences Europe, 32(1).

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