The environmental concerns prompting Sweden to act on pharmaceuticals in sewage



With around 2000 medical substances in use in Sweden in products numbering ten times this figure, the recent report by the Swedish Environmental Protection Agency recommending action to remove pharmaceuticals from sewage drew in particular on a report giving an updated review of the effects of pharmaceuticals in the environment. Keith Hayward spoke with Dr Petra Wallberg, part of the team from consultancy Sweco who prepared this report, about the case for action on pharmaceuticals in Sweden.

Dr Petra Wallberg
Dr Petra Wallberg

With Sweden’s government moving towards action on pharmaceuticals and micropollutants more generally, it faces the question of how to implement this action in practice.

A recent report by consultancy Sweco provided up-to-date insights into the presence and effects of pharmaceuticals in the aquatic environment, prepared as input to the Swedish Environmental Protection Agency’s recent report to government.

Given the complexity of the issue of pharmaceuticals, prioritisation is likely to be one of the important features of any future plan of action. A key aim of the report was therefore to provide an assessment to support progress on this issue.

The report concludes that the probability of finding high concentrations in receiving waters does not depend primarily on the size of the wastewater treatment plant. Rather it is a combination of the concentrations in the effluent and the volumes of water circulating in the receiving waters.

This aspect of the report is as might be expected – the impact on aquatic life depends upon the concentration of chemicals present, making dilution and dispersal in the environment an important factor in determining whether environmental quality standards or effect concentrations are exceeded.

A high concentration of pollutants coupled with a low dilution factor is likely to be of greatest concern, and this suggests that treatment plants would need to be considered on a case by case basis to establish whether treatment is needed because of such concerns.

The report includes an evaluation based on data on 25 pharmaceutical substances from 15 Swedish wastewater treatment plants. It also includes data from nine plants on a total of 38 other substances, grouped as fluorinated substances, chlorophenol or similar, musk substances, organophosphates / phosphate esters, and organo-tin compounds.

The report presents pharmaceutical results on plants and their receiving waters, ranging in size from Stockholm and Gothenburg as the largest down to small plants serving just a few thousand population equivalents.

‘We categorised the conclusions into three different groups,’ explains Dr Petra Wallberg, one of the Sweco team who prepared the report. For one of these groups, representing three of the treatment plants, there is a high risk of concentrations exceeding effect levels. This included the plants serving the towns of Uppsala and Eslöv.

For a second group, of four plants including Stockholm, there is a high risk of concentrations exceeding effect levels under certain conditions, such as at low water.


Large volume concerns

The third grouping, of six plants including Gothenburg, are classified as ‘low concentrations in the immediate area’. But this is not to say these plants are unimportant. In particular, the Sweco reports highlights evidence, such as that gathered recently to understand the impact of pharmaceuticals in the Baltic Sea region, about the persistence and bioaccumulation of pharmaceutical substances.

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  • Sweden, Sweco, pharmaceuticals, micropollutants