Europe’s freshwaters are under pressure from a large number of toxic substances emitted by industry, households and agriculture – yet only a fraction of them are monitored. Now is the moment for the European Commission to better regulate the presence of forever chemicals, toxic pesticides and hormone-altering substances in water.
While scarce, freshwater is a vital resource, representing our primary source of drinking water and providing habitats for a vast range of biodiversity. Worryingly, since 1970 there has been an 84% collapse in freshwater species populations globally, driven by habitat loss and pollution.
In Europe, water pollution remains a key issue 20 years after the adoption of the Water Framework Directive, with less than 40% of Europe’s rivers, lakes and streams in good chemical status. And yet, this does not tell the whole story: good chemical status under EU water law is assessed using a limited sub-set of pollutants present in water, while not taking into account the effects of chemical mixtures.
The European Commission now has the opportunity to extend the range of surface and groundwater pollutants that needs to be tackled across the EU. The proposal could mean that estrogenic substances (“hormones”) that cause feminisation of fish, antibiotics that contribute to antimicrobial resistance, as well as anti-inflammatory drugs like diclofenac that can deform fish, would finally have threshold values in freshwater.
Adding these substances to the list would mean that Member States would have to monitor their presence and take measures to ensure that the threshold concentrations are not surpassed. However, aquatic life such as fish, mussels and aquatic insects are not only affected by individual chemicals, but also by the overall mixture of chemicals present in their environment. Measuring single substances fails to consider the effect of chemical mixtures and it is possible that substances can even be substituted by compounds of similar toxicity by the time regulation catches up.
An analysis of water quality in Spain showed the presence of toxic pesticides in mixtures composed of dozens of pesticides in one single river. To account for the additive effect of substances with similar properties, neonicotinoids and pyrethroids, substances literally designed to kill, should be capped with a maximum concentration for the group.
Last year, the EU drinking water legislation was updated to limit the concentration of PFAS, a group of toxic ‘forever chemicals’ that are not removed by regular water treatment, as well as bisfenol A, a plastics additive known to disrupt the hormonal system of humans and wildlife. These substances urgently also need threshold values in freshwater systems to protect aquatic life.
To achieve good water status, Member States must impose stricter emission and discharge limits. The ongoing review of the EU’s wastewater treatment law presents an opportunity to require the upgrading of those wastewater treatment plants that assert the highest load of micropollutants to the environment, such as has already been done in Switzerland.
The Commission could also improve its monitoring of how Member States are doing in reducing the load of harmful substances to the environment. For example, a new Commission website on agricultural chemicals and their risk fails to inform about the actual use of pesticides, including the use of banned substances.
Even if the Commission would propose an extended list of water pollutants, the proposal is likely to be met with strong opposition. When the Commission last suggested to regulate the concentrations of pharmaceuticals in rivers, lakes and groundwaters nearly a decade ago, the suggestion was blocked by both Member States and the EU Parliament. Since then, the concern about the presence of water pollution in European waters has only increased.
The European Commission is running a public consultation to collect the view of civil society on this topic. The European Environmental Bureau shares the priorities of green groups and encourages citizens and organisations to participate and make their voices heard.
 European Commission, Food and Health Quality Protection – (EU27) – European Union 27 (excluding UK)