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Consumer-perceived risks and choices about pharmaceuticals in the environment: a cross-sectional study

Simone Dohle1*, Victoria E A Campbell23 and Joseph L Arvai34

Author Affiliations

1 Institute for Environmental Decisions, ETH Zurich, Zurich, Switzerland

2 Department of Communication and Culture, University of Calgary, Calgary, Canada

3 Department of Geography, University of Calgary, Calgary, Canada

4 Decision Research, Eugene, OR, USA

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Environmental Health 2013, 12:45  doi:10.1186/1476-069X-12-45

Published: 5 June 2013



There is increasing concern that pollution from pharmaceuticals used in human medicine and agriculture can be a threat to the environment. Little is known, however, if people are aware that pharmaceuticals may have a detrimental influence on the environment. The present study examines people’s risk perception and choices in regard to environmental risks of pharmaceuticals used in human medicine and for agricultural purposes.


A representative sample of the U.S. population (N = 640) was surveyed. Respondents completed a hypothetical choice task that involved tradeoffs between human and environmental health. In addition, it was examined how much people would support an environment policy related to drug regulation.


For agricultural pharmaceuticals, respondents reported a high level of satisfaction for a policy requiring farms to limit their use of antibiotics. In the domain of pharmaceuticals used in human medicine, we found that people were willing to consider environmental consequences when choosing a drug, but only when choices were made about treatment options for a rather harmless disease. In contrast, when decisions were made about treatment options for a severe disease, the drug’s effectiveness was the most important criterion.


It can be concluded that the environmental impact of a drug will be hardly considered in decisions about pharmaceuticals for severe diseases like cancer, and this may be due to the fact that these decisions are predominantly affective in nature. However, for less severe health risks, people are willing to balance health and environmental considerations.

Affect; Environment; Health effects; Pharmaceuticals; Risk, Survey