Most nations have strict controls on environmental waste, from arsenic to zinc. Yet no legal limits have been set to control pollution from drugs during their manufacture, use and disposal. That is despite evidence that pharmaceutical waste can wreak havoc in the environment — hormones found in contraceptives cause male fish to grow female sex organs, and a painkiller used in livestock has wiped out millions of vultures in India that fed on the carcasses.

The need for global action was recognized internationally for the first time last week at a meeting in Geneva, Switzerland, led by the United Nations Environment Programme. The move is a small but significant development.

Pharmaceuticals pollute the environment mainly because wastewater treatment plants do not adequately remove compounds found in the drugs that people ingest and excrete. High concentrations are also released into water during drug manufacture. Other pollution comes from unused medicines that have not been safely disposed of, particularly in developing countries where stockpiles of outdated donated medicines can build up and leach into the environment. The industry points to studies that find pharmaceutical pollution does not pose an immediate risk to human health, because the concentrations in drinking water are not high enough to cause problems. But the levels found in the environment still damage wildlife and ecosystems.

Last week, countries, the drug industry and non-governmental bodies formally agreed — for the first time — that humans and ecosystems need protection from pharmaceutical pollution. A resolution passed at the triennial International Conference on Chemicals Management (ICCM) also backs the need for global cooperation to build awareness and push for action to address drug pollution. The deal puts the issue permanently on the ICCM’s radar, and is a crucial first step towards building much-needed initiatives to address the problem.

The ICCM is a middleweight organization with high-level backing, and so it is able to make an impact. A large part of its remit is to keep an eye on progress towards a voluntary goal to ensure that, by 2020, chemicals are used and produced in a way that minimizes ill effects on human health and the environment. Heads of state backed the goal in 2002. It has helped to implement national bans on the use of lead in paint in developing countries including Uruguay and Nepal.

Critics will say that the latest pledge is weak — and they are correct. It rejects specific actions to combat the problem, as had been proposed by the governments of Peru and Uruguay and by the International Society of Doctors for the Environment. There are no commitments to a network of scientists and experts to research and share knowledge, or to improve national bio-monitoring. And there are no new legal demands on drug firms to clean up their manufacturing processes.

Although drug companies say that they maintain good environmental practices, research shows that drug manufacture is a significant source of pharmaceutical pollution. For example, unpublished data from the US Geological Survey show that concentrations of certain drugs are up to five times higher in the effluents of wastewater-treatment plants that serve drug-manufacturing facilities compared with those that do not.

The powerful pharmaceutical and water industries, which fear expensive measures to help to address the problem, have already demonstrated their muscle. Through aggressive lobbying, they managed to derail European efforts to impose legal environmental limits on two drugs in 2012.

The ICCM agreement should help to change things. With the world’s eyes now on this issue, industry groups and lobbyists will find it harder to bend initiatives in their favour. There could be an early test of the resolution: European policymakers plan to publish a strategy to tackle drug pollution in the region’s waterways by the end of the year.