Micropollutants in Water Bodies

Residues of pharmaceuticals, pesticides, biocides and other chemicals can have effects on the environment and human health even in low concentrations. These micropollutants are increasingly being detected in our water bodies, not least thanks to better analytical methods. Recommendations for reducing the input into water bodies are listed.

While being produced, processed, used and disposed of, chemicals can enter groundwater, rivers, lakes and oceans as micropollutants through various pathways, e.g. through effluents from sewage treatment plants, wash-off from soils, leaching via precipitation, infiltration or direct application in water bodies.

UBA Recommendations

The German Environment Agency has analysed the input pathways, identified critical substance properties and derived Recommendations for Action. The findings show that only a combination of measures in production, usage and wastewater treatment can bring about comprehensive protection.

The following approaches are useful in the individual subject areas:

Pharmaceuticals: For effective control during authorisation, the manufacturing companies must disclose all environmental data for micropollutant evaluation. This also applies to active substances of medicinal products that have been on the market for a long time. Moreover, research into environmentally compatible active substances needs to be increased as well. As a rule, active substances of veterinary medicinal product with harmful environmental properties (persistent, bioaccumulative, toxic) should not be authorised. Doctors and pharmacists must be better informed about the environmental aspects of medicinal products. Patients also need to be better informed that medical products are never to be disposed of down the sink or toilet.

Plant protection products (PPPs): Overall, significantly fewer chemical pesticides should be used. To achieve this, organic farming needs to be expanded and preventive measures implemented in conventional farming, such as extended crop rotation. In order to minimise inputs into water bodies during and after application, permanently vegetated watercourse margins should be established along rivers and streams where the use of PPPs is prohibited. When plant protection products are applied, a technique should be used that ensures the most accurate, loss-free and clean application possible.

Biocides (agents for pest control, disinfection and material protection): In general, the use of biocides should be minimised to the extent absolutely necessary. Individual restrictions on use and requirements for the authorisation of biocides are not sufficient. In addition, reliable data on sales and usage levels needs to be collected, environmental pollution systematically monitored and overarching guidelines for the environmentally sound management and appropriate use of biocides issued.

Wastewater: Since many of the proposed measures require a longer lead time and cannot prevent all micropollutant inputs, it is also necessary to address wastewater treatment. Chemicals from various applications enter municipal wastewater treatment plants. A fourth treatment stage could efficiently reduce their input into water bodies. UBA estimates assume additional costs averaging 16 euros per person per year for expanding large sewage treatment plants in Germany.

Measures to reduce the input of micropollutants are associated with costs. Studies on the possible structuring of a pesticide levy and pharmaceutical levy (in German) as well as on upgrading the wastewater levy (in German) and its impetus for the financing (in German) of more advanced purification technologies have already established important foundations for further technical discussion. There have already been very specific proposals (in German) for amending the wastewater levy, which should be pursued in the next legislative period.

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 micropollutants  biopharmaceuticals  plant protection agent  biocides