Europe needs a strategic approach to combating micropollutants, tackling the problem at source. Further EU legislation is required





Pharmaceuticals, pesticides, cosmetics and many other daily products contain chemical substances produced by man. When we use them, they end up in the environment and particularly in our surface waters as micropollutants.

These micropollutants are a challenge for waste water operators, whose mission is to treat waste water to ensure the protection of the environment and ecosystems, and for drinking water operators, who have to rely on clean sources to provide us all with drinking water.

Advanced treatment processes to remove micropollutants from water exist but they are energy intensive and often substance specific. In addition, they are costly and perform poorly in environmental analysis. Innovative technologies and solutions addressing these drawbacks are being developed.

We want to see micropollutants prevented from entering the water cycle in the first place, and legislation enacted at EU level to do this. Establishing the conditions that support such a source control approach is an EU-wide challenge but this needs to be faced.


Three governing principles

EU legislation is based on three principles: the Precautionary Principle, the Control-at-Source Principle and the Polluter-Pays Principle.

We have consistently advocated for a control-at-source approach to micropollutants as well as for the implementation of the Precautionary Principle in environmental policy.

These are laid down in EU treaties to protect the environment. These principles constitute the underlying philosophy behind the Water Framework Directive (WFD) and far reaching European chemical legislation such as the Registration, Evaluation, Authorisation and Restriction of Chemicals (REACH) Regulation, the Plant Protection Products Regulation, the Biocides Regulation and cosmetics legislation.


A Europe-wide strategic approach to micropollutants

These principles are haphazardly applied in EU law. The EU urgently needs to adopt a strategic approach to micropollutants based on the Control-at-Source Principle while considering the entire life cycle of substances when legislating.

We would also like to see the ecolabel used more extensively on products and services that have a reduced environmental impact throughout their life cycle, from the extraction of raw materials through to production, use and disposal. This would contribute to raising awareness among citizens and help them make smarter decisions about the products they use. Specifically, we would like to see action on the following:

  1. Pharmaceuticals in the environment

We support the European Commission’s adoption of a strategic approach to pharmaceuticals in the environment.

  1. Microplastics

Marine litter, including microplastics, is a global challenge that needs holistic solutions involving many stakeholders, also taking into account the Polluter-Pays Principle. We are encouraged by the steps currently being taken across the EU to ban the use of plastic microbeads in certain cosmetic products. We want to see source control actions to reduce marine litter.

  1. Pesticides

Pesticides are having a negative impact on the quality of water resources, and drinking water operators have to increasingly resort to extra and expensive treatment while consumers bear the cost. The introduction of stringent cutoff criteria within the authorisation process of active substances reflects the legislator’s intention to tackle the impacts of pesticides on the environment. However, these new requirements are only effective on the authorisation of new active substances, not on the ones currently in use. Adequate drinking water-related criteria should be taken into account in the chemicals’ authorisation phase.

  1. Need for specific regulation on chemicals in textiles

More than 10% of the substances used in the textile industry are identified to be of potential concern for human health and 5% are expected to have a very harmful impact on the environment. We, therefore, want to see an enhanced regulation of chemicals in textiles.

  1. Phasing out dental amalgam in the EU

Mercury is one of the most hazardous environmental toxins on the planet and is a threat to human health and the environment as elementary mercury accumulates in water, sediments and living organisms. Phasing out mercury’s use should be of primary importance. Dental amalgam is one of the major sources of mercury in the aquatic environment. Its ban can also be regarded as best practice or best-available technology to reduce the flow of mercury in urban areas.

  1. Better use of REACH

The 2006 REACH regulation is a key instrument to control hazardous substances entering the urban water cycle and to fulfil the requirements for good chemical status in the WFD. It is essential that its authorisation process is used much more frequently, identifying more substances of high concern and using the authorisation process in a strict way.

The control-at-source approach is key to delivering the circular economy

Fewer harmful substances in the environment will result in cleaner groundwater, rivers, lakes, coasts and seas, and a better quality of the residual products obtained from the treatment of waste water. Water suppliers will have access to adequate and reliable drinking water resources that are protected from contamination.

An effective source-control approach makes the reuse of water and nutrients, like nitrogen and phosphorus from waste water and sludge, possible.

In fact, sewage sludge and waste water are valuable sources that can be reused and recycled if they fulfil appropriate quality criteria. In that sense, source control can contribute to the circular economy, creating jobs and a sustainable society.

Fewer harmful substances in our water cycle and the environment benefits everyone. We can make this happen by contributing to the legislative process of EU institutions.


By Michael Bentveltsen, Chair of the EurEau Joint Working Group on Micropollutants

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