UBA issues recommendations to fight micropollutants in water bodies

Take precautions rather than restorative measures to prevent long-term problems

Ein Reagenzkolben vor grüner Wiese, darin Wasser.Click to enlarge
Sophisticated analytical methods show: Our water can contain various micropollutants.
Source: Vasily Merkushev / Fotolia.com

Pharmaceutical drug residues, biocides and other chemicals in even the smallest concentrations can have a negative impact on the environment and human health. Ever more sophisticated analytical methods are tracing more and more of these micropollutants in our waters. This is why the German Environment Agency (UBA) is proposing a package of measures to drastically cut discharges of substances into water bodies. Inputs of persistent substances to water often cause problems that last for decades. A few examples of the past include tributyltin compounds (TBT, from biocidal hull coatings), perfluorooctane sulfonate (PFOS, from fire-extinguishing foams and electroplating processes) or Diuron (from plant protection products). Traces of pharmaceuticals such as diclofenac and ibuprofen are now increasingly being found in water bodies.

The manufacture, processing, use and disposal of chemicals can produce micropollutants which enter groundwater, river, lakes and oceans via different pathways, either through wastewater from sewage treatment plants, soil erosion, leaching from precipitation, seepage or even direct inputs. The German Environment Agency has analysed the input paths, identified critical substance properties, and drawn up recommendations for action on the basis of their findings. There are indications that only a combination of measures in production, applications and wastewater treatment can provide effective all-round protection.

Pharmaceuticals: Manufacturers must provide all the environmentally relevant data for a substance evaluation to enable effective management of the authorisation procedure. This is also true for active pharmaceutical ingredients which have already been on the market for a long time. Also, more research must be done on environmentally friendly active ingredients. Active agents in veterinary drugs which have harmful environmental properties (e.g. persistent, bioaccumulative, toxic) should not be authorised at all. Physicians and pharmacists must have better information about the environmental aspects of pharmaceutical drugs. Patients must be better informed, too – drugs must never be disposed of down the drain or toilet.

Plant protection products (PPP): The total amount of chemical plant protection products applied must be greatly reduced. To achieve this aim, organic farming must be scaled up and preventative measures in conventional agriculture such as expansion of crop rotation taken. To minimize any pollutant introductions into waters, well-vegetated riparian zones should be created along rivers and streams on which the application of PPP is prohibited. The technology used to spread PPP must ensure targeted, loss-free and clean application.

Biocides (chemicals used for pest control, disinfection and for material protection): In general the use of biocides should be reduced to the necessary minimum. A few individual limitations on their application and requirements to be met for their authorisation are not sufficient. In addition,  reliable data on sales and application volumes must be collected, pollution must be monitored in a systematic way, and comprehensive guidelines for the environmentally appropriate and proper utilization of biocides must be issued.

Wastewater: Since many of the proposed measures require a great deal of lead time and not all inputs of micropollutants can be prevented, efforts must be focused on wastewater treatment. The chemicals used in various applications are entered into municipal wastewater treatment plants. A fourth purification stage could effectively reduce their input to waters. Calculations by UBA assume additional costs of an average 16 euros per person and year for the expansion of the large wastewater treatment facilities in Germany.

There must also be a societal dialogue which occurs above and beyond any funding and implementation of the measures recommended by the German Environment Agency. The stakeholder dialogue on trace substances which the German Environment Agency supervises is the appropriate platform for this purpose. Nevertheless, it must be stated clearly that the substance inputs of today threaten to become the costly pollution legacies of tomorrow.