World Water Day: Reducing chemicals in waters

New Federal Centre for Trace Substances at UBA kicks off

Ein Abflussrohr.Click to enlarge
Pollutants should not be discharged into the wastewater in the first place.
Source: Bambuh /

Pharmaceuticals, detergents, pesticides etc. – ever more chemicals are polluting our waters. The Trace Substance Strategy of the German Federal Government focuses on preventing further inputs of such trace substances to the aquatic environment. The Federal Environment Ministry (BMU) and the German Environment Agency (UBA) are presenting the results of the strategy's pilot phase at a conference being held today on World Water Day. UBA will move ahead on work to implement the Trace Substance Strategy at a newly established Federal Centre for Trace Substances.

The new Federal Centre for Trace Substances at⁠ UBA, located in Leipzig, will start up its work over the coming months and identify further relevant trace substances in cooperation with an expert panel. Together with producers and representatives from water management, round tables aim to develop further measures to reduce discharges and advise the Länder on the introduction of a fourth step in the treatment process at wastewater treatment facilities. The task portfolio of the Centre for Trace Substances also includes pushing ahead with research in the field of trace substances and developing a structured exchange of information between Länder, municipalities, competence centres and universities about source-related and end-of-pipe reduction measures.

The best approach is to prevent trace substances from entering wastewater in the first place. This requires starting with the production and use of products, for example in the pharmaceutical and construction industries. Our society uses a large number of different chemicals every day - veterinary and human medicines, detergents and cleaning agents, biocides in the household, health and construction sectors, industrial chemicals, pesticides and others. The exact number of different substances is neither known nor constant because new compounds are developed every day. There are currently about 22,000 different chemicals registered under ⁠REACH⁠. This number does not include biocides, pesticides and pharmaceuticals. Many of these chemicals are discharged into waterbodies via wastewater from households, industrial plants or agricultural land. Although they are only traceable in low concentrations on a nano- to milligram scale, they can still pose a challenge to drinking water supplies or harm aquatic life, with a corresponding negative impact on aquatic ecosystems.

During the now concluded pilot phase of the trace substance strategy, a 15-member expert panel consisting of representatives from federal and state authorities, industry, environmental associations, science, pharmacists and water management identified a number of relevant trace substances. Round tables on three relevant trace substances were held by the producers and associations in order to quickly develop and implement reduction measures. The Länder applied an orientative framework for end-of-pipe measures for trace substance elimination and identified numerous wastewater treatment plants where a fourth treatment step aimed at eliminating trace substances might be useful. The pilot phase was supported by ISI Fraunhofer and the team from IKU in charge of the dialogue process. Their work was complemented by the activities of individual stakeholders to inform the population and professional users about the impacts of trace substances in waters. The BMU has assigned the project the logo of the UN Water Action Decade (2018-2028) as an overarching campaign umbrella.

The UN General Assembly declared World Water Day and is held on 22 March every year since 1993. The theme of this year's World Water Day is "Valuing Water".

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