(Brussels 28th November) Earlier today the Environment Committee of the European Parliament voted to weaken proposed legislation designed to tackle pollution in our rivers, lakes and groundwater aquifers. The Commission proposal adds 15 new chemicals to the current list of 33 substances that need to be tackled across the EU most urgently. The decision to limit the concentration of three pharmaceuticals in waterways 1, due to the risks they pose on aquatic life, had sparked intense opposition from pharmaceutical industries. This decision by MEPs to delay tackling pollution from pharmaceuticals disregards scientific evidence and undermines the need for action by the Member States.
“Today’s vote in the Parliament is bad news for aquatic life. The evidence of fish feminisation caused by the endocrine-disrupting chemicals is among the most extensive and alarming we have on the impact of chemicals on the aquatic environment. By delaying action on these three pharmaceuticals for another decade)/ The Environment Committee has set a dangerous precedent by ignoring the robust scientific evidence Unfortunately, the problem is not going to go away and will only get worse and more difficult to solve.”
“The argument that tackling pollution from pharmaceuticals in aquatic environments is too costly has dominated the debate. However the estimates factored into the cost looked at expensive-end of pipe solutions, such as upgrading waste water treatment facilities, and disregarded cheaper solutions to stop pollution at source. In addition, Member States are under legal obligation to assess costs and benefits of actions to tackle pollution and have a possibility not to proceed if the costs are deemed excessive. Unfortunately, European elected representatives chose to delete the obligation on Member States to even consider such an action.
Notes to the editor:
• Priority Substances Directive is a follow-up directive to the EU’s landmark water legislation, the Water Framework Directive. Priority Substances are chemical pollutants that pose a significant risk to (or via) the aquatic environment across the EU. Member States have to monitor their concentrations in surface, groundwater and coastal waters and take measures at national or local level to meet the Environmental Quality Standards, unless they can justify conditions that allow them to apply exemptions from this obligation provided certain conditions such as technical feasibility or disproportionality of the costs are met.
• All 15 proposed substances are backed by a solid body of research. Experts from Member States and key stakeholders have been closely involved throughout the prioritisation process and the evidence was considered sufficient to designate them as priority substances – based essentially on their hazard and their presence in the aquatic environment. The proposed standards were also submitted and reviewed by the independent Scientific Committee on Health and Environmental Risks (SCHER). As part of this prioritisation more than 2000 substances, all of which pose a risk to aquatic ecosystems, were screened, but mainly due to the lack of monitoring data across EU Member States, only 15 substances were prioritised for action at EU level.
Many of the 15 substances are persistent and/or bio-accumulative as well as toxic (e.g. dioxins, PFOS) and are therefore likely to remain in the environment for decades and affect birds and mammals including humans via secondary poisoning. Others are characterised by acute toxicity (e.g. cypermethrine, dichlorvos), show evidence of carcinogenicity in humans (e.g. dioxins, dicofol), or are known endocrine disruptors (e.g. heptachlor, the estradiols).
• For the first time, the proposal identifies three pharmaceuticals as priority substances. Contrary to claims by certain industries, there is a solid body of evidence underpinning the proposal. They have been included in the list following the full technical consideration of monitoring results and research studies reviewed by the experts, which demonstrate that pharmaceuticals pose a significant risk to the aquatic environment in the concentrations observed.
In particular, the European Environment Agency report from 2011 provides a summary of numerous studies that document a range of detrimental impacts of pharmaceuticals upon freshwater ecosystems. For example, introducing synthetic oestrogen at concentrations found in polluted environments (5-6 ng/l) in a Canadian Experimental Lake resulted in feminisation of the of male fathead minnows and within seven years the fish species was almost extinct from the lake, clearly demonstrating that endocrine disruptors can threaten the sustainability of wild fish populations.
Many of Europe’s rivers are home to male fish that are ‘intersex’ and so display female sexual characteristics, including female reproductive anatomy. Some males also produce vitellogenin, a protein normally found in eggs that can be induced in males by hormone exposure. In one of the largest studies of the problem, the UK government’s Environment Agency found in 2004 that 86% of male fish sampled at 51 sites around the country were intersex.
-For example, a study led by environmental chemist Mike Gardner at Atkins, an environmental consultancy headquartered in Epsom, UK, tested effluents from 160 wastewater treatment plants. He found that almost all effluents exceeded the commission’s proposed standard for EE2, and that about half exceeded it by more than 13 times.
-The proposal does not provide any ban or phase-out obligation on pharmaceuticals. It simply requires Member States to monitor these substances in their waters and ensure that their concentration does not exceed the established safe limits which do not pose a risk to aquatic environment will not be crossed.
-There are however also simple low cost measures both “end of the pipe” and “upstream”:
-tertiary sand filtration which can remove estrogens from water.
-“take back schemes” for unused pharmaceuticals
-encouraging design of green pharmaceuticals that are fully metabolised in the body and rapidly biodegrade in the environment into harmless compounds;
-educating healthcare professionals to optimise medicines prescription behaviour so that only the right amount of pharmaceuticals needed is prescribed, giving priority to the least environmentally hazardous medicines.
-In addition, even though, the proposal does not require substitution of the pharmaceuticals, alternatives may be considered to reduce the costs. For example, several Non-Steroidal Anti-Inflammatory Drugs exist that could be used instead of diclofenac, with similar therapeutic efficacy but allowing easier removal in conventional waste water treatment plants.
Contact WWF European Policy Office,
Media & Communications,
WWF European Policy Office,
Tel: +32 476 25 68 79
Senior Water Policy Officer
WWF European Policy Office
Tel: +32 499 53 97 34