European action on hazardous substances, micropollutants and pharmaceuticals in water



Efforts to tackle hazardous substances, micropollutants and pharmaceuticals in the aquatic environment is one of the areas upon which Aqua Strategy will focus. Here we give a brief overview of some of the main targets of current and possibly future legislation and testing.

Europe’s priority substancesList of EU WFD priority substances

European Union action on waterborne pollutants is channelled through the Water Framework Directive (2000/60/EC). The actual compounds and the environmental standards that must be met are set out in ‘daughter’ directives to the WFD, most recently the Priority Substances Directive 2013/39/EU, which amended the WFD and Directive 2008/105/EC on Environmental Quality Standards.

The current list of priority substances, which includes a number classified as priority hazardous substances, focuses on metals, industrial chemicals, and persistent organic compounds, especially herbicides, pesticides and insecticides. The overall aim of the WFD is to improve environmental quality, which can mean addressing both point sources and non-point sources.

The EU list of priority and priority hazardous (marked H) substances are shown in the table, with the substances grouped approximately according to use or source.


Europe’s Watch List – an emerging focus on pharmaceuticals

The list of priority substances is not fixed, and there are a number of compounds on a ‘watch list’, pending further evidence as to whether they should be added to the priority list. This watch list was updated last year (Commission Implementing Decision (EU) 2015/495 of 20 March 2015).

Like the priority substances list itself, the watch list includes pesticides (tri-allate, methiocarb), herbicides (oxadiazon), and insecticides (the neonicotinoid insecticides acetamiprid, imidaclprid, clothianidin, thiacloprid and thiamethoxam).

Significantly, the list also includes substances linked to pharmaceuticals and personal care products. In particular, the watch list includes the painkiller diclofenac, the sex hormones 17-beta-estradiol (E2) and estrone (E1), the contraceptive hormone 17-alpha-ethinylestradiol (EE2), and the macrolide antibiotics erythromycin, clarithromycin and azithromycin.

In addition, the list includes 2-ethylhexyl 4-methoxycinnamate (octyl methoxycinnamate), which used in sunscreens, and 2,6-di-tert-butyl-4-methylphenol (butylated hydroxytoluene), which is used in various industries and consumer products, including as a food additive and antioxidant in cosmetics and pharmaceuticals.

Perhaps more significantly, and given the huge number of pharmaceutical compounds that get released to the environment, the directive also requires the European Commission to come forward by the end of next year with proposals for a strategy for dealing with pharmaceuticals.


Micropollutants and pharmaceuticals – the Swiss and Swedish perspectives

List of Swiss micropollutant compoundsSwitzerland has already committed to upgrading the treatment at many of its sewage treatment plants to cut the most significant point source discharges of micropollutants to its lakes and rivers. A test protocol has been developed for evaluating the elimination achieved by the extra treatment, for which there is an aim of an 80% reduction. Of the test compounds covered, one is a herbicide, while the other 11 are pharmaceuticals, of which two, diclofenac and clarithromycin, are on the European Union watch list. The compounds, and their main uses, are set out in the table.

List of Swedish pharmaceutical testsPharmaceuticals are gaining attention elsewhere too. In Sweden, for example, ozone technology company Primozone received funding at the start of 2014 to build a mobile test plant which was then used to carry out studies at ten locations during 2014 and 2015. The first test location was the municipality of Karlshamm, a town of around 13,000 inhabitants on the east coast of the country. These pilots tested the impact of ozonation on 24 different pharmaceutical compounds. According to Primozone, the tests showed that the ozonation removed up to 95% of the pharmaceutical residue using a dose of 5g of ozone per cubic metre of water.

Of the test compounds, one, diclofenac, is on the EU watch list. This and four others are also among those in the Swiss list of test compounds: carbamazepine, citalopram, hydrochlorothiazide, and metoprolol. The list of compounds tested for in Sweden and their use is shown in the table.

See: Switzerland's progress on micropollutants in sewage



  • Europe, micropollutants, pharmaceuticals, municipal wastewater, sewage