Pharmaceuticals and personal care products in the environment: Cultural and spiritual perspectives



Science-based decisions are often not (and need not be) detached from cultural and spiritual influences. In reality, cultural and spiritual beliefs often shape risk perceptions and influence science-based risk management decisions. Often there is inadequate acknowledgment or consideration of the role that socio-economic and cultural sensitivities play in environmental contamination issues, especially in managing water quality. Examples include the way in which water, due to its cleansing properties, and soil, for its sustenance role, are considered to be sacred elements in many scriptures (Christian, Hindu, Buddhist, and others). For example, the River Ganges is sacred to Hindus, and Christian symbolism treats water as a sacred symbol as well as a natural resource.

At a recent Society of Environmental Toxicology and Chemistry (SETAC) workshop in Adelaide, Australia on pharmaceuticals and personal care products (PPCPs), stakeholders from Australia and New Zealand discussed the “Top 20 Questions” that had been identified at a preceding SETAC global workshop (Pharmaceuticals and Personal Care Products in the Environment: What are the Big Questions?, Canada, April 2011). Given the strong cultural and spiritual values associated with water and soil attendees felt that, in managing PPCPs in the environment, cultural perspectives needed to be more fully considered by the scientific community and natural resource managers. They reflected on the sensitivities of Maori in New Zealand and Indigenous communities in Australia to changes in water quality, and the concern that Indigenous values were not being adequately reflected in water quality monitoring and management. The question of “how to consider cultural perspectives in managing PPCPs in the environment” was identified as an additional key question to those being considered during the workshop.


In the last decade, cultural sensitivities have been manifest strikingly in the debate on PPCPs in the environment through the well-known “Asian vulture crisis,” that was a result of the widespread use of the anti-inflammatory drug diclofenac for veterinary purposes (Oaks et al. 2004). With a massive (>92%) decline in the vulture (Gyps spp.) population in India due to exposure to diclofenac, the Parsi community had to find alternatives to their traditional practice of taking their dead to the “Towers of Silence” to be eaten by vultures (Markandya et al. 2008). In Hindu and Buddhist religions, vultures and other larger birds are considered sacred.

In Australia and New Zealand, Indigenous communities have strong sensitivities to water and water quality. All water is highly valued by Australian Indigenous people, and by Maori in New Zealand. Cultural and spiritual values were recognised among other values used in water quality management in the Australia and New Zealand Guidelines for Fresh and Marine Water Quality (ANZECC and ARMCANZ 2000), and their current revision involves consultation to better incorporate these needs.

In planning for the management of surface water quality, the New Zealand Ministry for the Environment (Ministry for Environment 2007) acknowledged that “many Maori consider water as the source of life and sustenance. Maori believe that water contains a mauri (life force) that joins physical and spiritual elements and links water to every other part of the natural world. Water is a taonga (treasure) because it carries the lifeblood of the land; the well-being of all living things depend on it. Maintaining water quality in the best possible condition, so that a river or lake and its ecosystems are healthy, is an issue of major concern for many Maori.”

The mixing of waters by unnatural means, the mixing of waters from different sources with separate mauri, or discharges of “used” waters or wastes to living waters that supply food are contrary to the Maori conception of a healthy environment (Ministry for Environment 2007). Agricultural and urban runoff therefore may significantly degrade the mauri of streams.

In the Australian context, Australian Indigenous people have a strong and unbroken relationship to their land, sacred sites, stories, and natural resources that extends through oral and written history. An Indigenous belief is that: If the water is healthy, Country is healthy. If Country is healthy then the People and Culture will be healthy.

“Living Water” is a term phrased by desert Indigenous Australians for permanent water in a dry land with distinct physical properties, language meanings and cultural significance. If a water system is contaminated, Indigenous people would impose a restriction on use and access until the system returns to full health. If a permanent water hole dries up or its quality is affected, its cultural significance and story can be reduced or diminished.

There are examples where physical and chemical contamination and declines in water quality have led Indigenous communities “to the point of extreme despair.” This was the case with the Ngati Awa people of New Zealand, whose history is intertwined with the Tarawera River. The river water quality deteriorated due to discharges of effluents from housing and pulp and paper mills in the region, strongly affecting the relationship of the community with the river (Moggridge and Mihinui 2010).


In consideration of the importance of Indigenous cultural and spiritual values in water quality management, Australia and New Zealand have developed a set of guiding principles to assist in better understanding the significance of these values (Moggridge and Mihinui 2010). These were developed to ensure that Indigenous values were respected and adequately incorporated into water quality management process.

One of these guiding principles recognizes the connectivity that Indigenous people have to their land and water resources. The Australia and New Zealand Guidelines for Fresh and Marine Water Quality (ANZECC and ARMCANZ 2000) recognised the need to understand that:

….the Indigenous people of Australia and Aotearoa (New Zealand) believe that the land, sky, water, and its people are inseparable—they are all connected. This principle is inter-related to lore, cultural, obligation, and the Traditional Knowledge. For example, Indigenous people understand through stories and songs from their ancestors that the water that falls on the mountains ends up in the sea, either by surface movement or under the ground. Any interruption or changes in quality to this cycle can be disastrous.

In this context, it is also important to ensure that Indigenous traditional knowledge and intellectual property are protected, and that prior informed consent processes are carried out with the relevant Indigenous peoples.

These guiding principles can help interpret the diversity of Indigenous values, which can include: lore and customs; spiritual values; iconic or totemic species; food and other resources; sacred songs, dance, stories, and heroes; Indigenous language concepts; traditional knowledge; gender responsibility; and, social structures, kinship systems, and intergenerational responsibilities. These cultural and spiritual values can strongly influence water quality management, particularly in relation to perceptions of hazards and consequences, the selection of biological monitoring indicators, the conceptualization of fate pathways, environmental receptors, risk management measures, and risk communication processes.


The recent Adelaide SETAC workshop on PPCPs in the environment concluded that, in dealing with the land and water quality impacts of PPCPs, adequate consideration also needs to be given to Indigenous cultural and spiritual values, and the role played by social and cultural values more broadly. There is an urgent need to better understand the potential impact of PPCPs on land and water quality, and the impacts these chemicals can have on these values. The incorporation of such knowledge into water quality management strategies remains a global significant challenge.