Water resources must be better protected

UBA warns against slow-to-degrade and mobile chemicals

Water splashing on someone's handsClick to enlarge
Water resources must be better protected
Source: Ramona Hein/Fotolia

Slow-to-degrade, mobile and partly toxic chemicals, so-called PMT/vPvM substances, can endanger our water resources over a long period of time. That is why the German Environment Agency – in line with the European chemicals regulation REACH – is calling for emissions of such substances into the environment to be minimised. The urgent need for action is shown by four new UBA studies, including one on water analyses in 13 drinking water catchment areas. With this in mind, the UBA is also publishing a list of 259 such PMT/vPvM substances and calling on the chemical industry to take immediate action.

PMT/vPvM substances are at the same time persistent (P), mobile (M) and partly toxic (T) chemicals. In the case of vPvM substances, they are actually very persistent (vP) and very mobile (vM) compounds. The compounds in this group of substances share the same properties, but can be used for different purposes: as pesticides, biocides, active pharmaceutical ingredients or industrial chemicals. They are used in the production of dyes and adhesives or as corrosion protection for metals, for example in cleaning tabs for dishwashers. They are extremely stable and move with the water cycle. Once they have contaminated our water resources, they can only be removed again with great effort, if at all.

In four new studies, the UBA has investigated the occurrence of PMT/vPvM substances in the environment. According to these studies, chemicals that are difficult to degrade and are mobile occur much more frequently in the environment than was previously assumed. Some of these are mobile Forever chemicals from the group of perfluorinated and polyfluorinated alkyl substances (PFAS) and many cannot be removed by conventional water treatment methods such as ozonation or activated carbon filters.

UBA research partners examined 76 samples from surface water, groundwater and bank filtrate at 13 German drinking water suppliers. They found chemicals to be present in every water sample. The scientists identified numerous PFAS – mostly mobile Forever chemicals – but also non-fluorinated substances such as 1-H benzotriazole, 1,4-dioxane and melamine, which raised the question among UBA experts whether these are not also mobile Forever chemicals.

In order to assess the risk of PMT/vPvM substances for humans and the environment, it is not the locally measured concentrations that are decisive. Rather, it is the extreme longevity and high mobility of the chemicals that are problematic. Because of the special substance properties, concentrations could increase in the long term and PMT/vPvM substances could spread over long distances in the environment.

UBA President Dirk Messner therefore considers that the chemical industry has a duty to minimise emissions of these PMT/vPvM substances: "The sustainable protection of our drinking water resources and human health must have priority in this context. Because once drinking water resources are polluted with persistent chemicals, this will be almost impossible to remediate, or will require immense effort and expense."

Furthermore, a extensive literature search shows that already today more than 600 chemicals have been detected in our water resources. Around half of the chemicals detected fall under the European chemicals regulation ⁠REACH⁠. Many of these are PMT/vPvM substances. Dr Christiane Rohleder, State Secretary at the Federal Ministry for the Environment, Nature Conservation and Nuclear Safety, said: "I am very grateful to UBA for the work done on this. These results are extremely important and show that this class of substances is a relevant issue for our water resources. I therefore call on industry to take the necessary measures on its own initiative and as a precaution to avoid further entry of these substances into the environment as far as possible."

This is where the newly published UBA listcomes in, capturing 259 PMT/vPvM substances from the REACH registration database. Manufacturers and downstream users of these substances can now use the UBA list to check which of their chemicals are PMT/vPvM substances. Users should take the new hazard classes PMT and vPvM into account when self-classifying in the future. In order to protect our water resources and aquatic environments for future generations, they must significantly minimise emissions of these chemicals throughout their life cycle.

Further information:

Two of the most commonly detected contaminants – 1,4-dioxane and melamine – have already been officially identified as substances of very high concern in Europe at the initiative of the UBA.

Umweltbundesamt Headquarters

Wörlitzer Platz 1
06844 Dessau-Roßlau

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 water  chemicals  PFAS  PMT  vPvM  REACH  EU REACH Regulation