Eight Toxics Proposed for Elimination from European Waters

BRUSSELS, Belgium, February 1, 2012 (ENS) – Fifteen chemicals would be added to a list of priority substances regulated by the EU’s water framework law, under a European Commission proposal issued Tuesday. Six of them would be designated as priority hazardous substances that must be phased out within 20 years.

Two substances already on the list would be newly classed as hazardous, requiring their elimination as well.

Environment Commissioner Janez Potocnik said, “Water pollution is one of the environmental worries most frequently cited by EU citizens. I welcome this advance as it is clearly answering people’s expectations. These 15 additional chemicals need to be monitored and controlled to ensure they don’t pose a risk to the environment or human health.”

Water samples tested for hazardous substances by the French Food Safety Agency (Photo courtesy AFSSA)

For six of the 15 newly identified priority substances, the proposal requires their release to water to be eliminated in 20 years. The proposal also includes stricter standards for four currently controlled substances, and a requirement to phase out the emissions of two others already on the list.

A more complete description of the 15 substances and the dangers they present is at the foot of this report.

For the first time, pharmaceuticals are proposed for listing as priority substances. The proposal does not question the medicinal value of these substances, but addresses the potential harmful effects of their presence in the aquatic environment.

This product contains 48% Dicofol, proposed as a priority hazardous substance. (Photo credit unknown)

The six Priority Hazardous Substances in the proposal are: Dicofol, Quinoxyfen, Perfluorooctanesulfonic acid, Heptachlor, Hexabromocyclododecane, Dioxin and Dioxin-Like PCBs.

The substances already on the Priority Substances List but which would be subject to stricter standards are: Brominated diphenylethers, Fluoranthene, Nickel, Polyaromatic Hydrocarbons, PAHs.

The two existing substances which would become Priority Hazardous Substances are Diethylhexylphthalate and Trifluralin.

Priority substances are chemical pollutants that pose a “significant risk” to the aquatic environment across the European Union.

There are currently 33 priority substances listed under the Water Framework Directive. The 27 EU Member States have to monitor their concentrations in surface waters and meet the Environmental Quality Standards set for them within a certain timeline, unless they qualify for exemptions.

For the nine substances proposed for addition to the priority list but not classed as “hazardous,” the proposal requires only monitoring. It does not require EU Member States to take any measures to limit emissions of these chemicals, remove them from waterways or find substitutes for them.

Existing EU and/or international legislation is expected to reduce the emissions of many of these nine substances, the Commission says, adding that inclusion of the substances in the Priority Substances List means that monitoring data would be obtained to provide feedback on the effectiveness of existing legislation.

The substances that would be designated as priority hazardous substances are already, or will probably soon become, subject to controls under other legislation. And in most cases substitutes are available or are likely to be developed within the 20-year timeframe for phasing out emissions, the Commission said.

Chemical plant on the Rhine River near Cologne, Germany (Photo by Bodoklecksel courtesy Wikimedia Commons)

Member States would have to take all six of the newly listed priority hazardous substances and the two chemicals reclassified as hazardous into account in preparing and implementing their second River Basin Management Plans, which are due to be adopted in 2015. They would have to ensure that the additional substances are monitored, and that Environmental Quality Standards are met by 2021.

The Commission says this requirement could mean that Member States take measures at the national or local level. But if additional measures taken at local or national level prove insufficient to meet the Environmental Quality Standards, additional EU measures “might need to be considered,” the Commission said.

Environmentalists say the proposal is too weak to protect human health or European waters.

Greenpeace EU chemicals policy director Kevin Stairs said, “It’s been 12 years since lawmakers agreed to phase out the most dangerous chemicals from our water – chemicals linked to serious human illnesses and toxic contamination of rivers and lakes. Since then, the Commission has systematically dodged its responsibility to set concrete plans to rid our water of these known poisons and would instead allow them to contaminate yet another generation.”

The European Environmental Bureau, Europe’s largest federation of environmental organizations with more than 140 member groups, said the proposal is inadequate to prevent hazardous chemical pollution.

Too few substances have been selected for limitation, said the EEB, and there are insufficient guarantees that the EU-wide measures will be taken to phase out the release of the most dangerous substances.

“From a list of 2,000 substances initially considered as potentially dangerous, it is worrying to see that the Commission has decided to target only 15 of these for pollution reduction. Considering they are supposed to take a precautionary approach to these matters, this seems reckless,” said Sarolta Tripolszky, EEB’s water policy officer.

The coal-fired Kozienice power plant on the Vistula River is Poland’s second largest. It emits dioxins, as do all coal-burning facilities. (Photo courtesy Ecol)

The EEB is concerned that the directive fails to deal with chemical cocktail effects, the often unknown impact of a mix of two or more hazardous chemicals.

The EEB did welcome the introduction of pharmaceuticals as a long awaited recognition of the fact that these have “disastrous environmental consequences.”

The group also welcomed the introduction of a watch list to support the future identification and monitoring of potentially toxic substances.

“Although the principle that water is a heritage which must be protected, defended and treated as such has been part of EU water policy for over a decade now, the Commission is yet to come up with effective measures to phase out the release of hazardous substances in water,” said Christian Schaible, EEB’s Chemical Policy officer.

The EEB calls for the establishment of a binding timetable and a straightforward framework for phase-out measures within the EQS directive which is to be harmonized with other EU legislation.

The European Commission says in its proposal that “a new mechanism” is needed to provide targeted high-quality monitoring information on the concentration of substances in the aquatic environment across EU river basins, with a focus on emerging pollutants and substances for which available monitoring data are not of sufficient quality for the purpose of risk assessment.

To maintain the monitoring costs at reasonable levels, the Commission proposes that the mechanism focus on a limited number of substances, included temporarily in a “dynamic” watch list, and a limited number of monitoring sites, but deliver representative data that are fit for the purpose of the EU prioritization process.

The 15 toxic substances in the Commission’s proposal are:

  • 17 alpha-ethinylestradiol (EE2) – Pharmaceutical; synthetic steroid hormone used mainly in oral contraceptives. Endocrine disruptive; prolonged exposure to low concentrations of EE2 has been shown to cause sex changes, alterations in reproductive capacity, and ultimately population collapse in fish.
  • 17 beta-estradiol (E2) – Steroid hormone: 90 percent excreted naturally in human and livestock urine; remainder emitted as a result of pharmaceutical use for hormone replacement therapy. Endocrine disruptive; studies show effects on sexual development and fecundity in fish.
  • Aclonifen – Herbicide, used on a range of arable crops.
  • Bifenox – Herbicide, used to kill broadleaf weeds in cereal crops and grassland.
  • Cybutryne, marketed as Irgarol – Biocide used as antifouling agent in coatings for boat hulls. Toxic; degrades only slowly and main degradation product also toxic; persists in sediments.
  • Cypermethrin – Insecticidal pyrethroid plant protection product and biocide, used in arable farming, salmon farming, sheep dipping and wood preservation. Binds to sediment. Use in the marine environment is authorized in a few countries of the world but prohibited in Canada, where it is linked to the death of lobsters.
  • Dichlorvos – Organophosphorus insecticide and biocide, used in grain/nut stores, insecticidal sprays/strips. Toxic particularly to aquatic invertebrates and fish; possibly carcinogenic to humans.
  • Diclofenac – Pharmaceutical, used as non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drug. Toxic, directly and through secondary pathways such as the extermination of vultures in India poisoned by eating carcasses of cattle that had been treated with the drug.
  • Dicofol – Organochlorine former plant protection product and biocide, until recently authorized for use on fruit and vegetable crops. Toxic; similar to DDT, recommended for designation as a Persistent Organic Pollutant under the Stockholm Convention; possibly carcinogenic to humans, possibly endocrine disruptive.
  • Dioxins and dioxin-like polychlorinated biphenyls, PCBs – Dioxins are by-products of thermal combustion. PCBs are chlorinated organic compounds formerly used to manufacture electrical equipment, some also produced by combustion. Some forms probably carcinogenic to humans; other possible effects include endocrine disruption, impairment of immune system, nervous system, reproduction. Limits already set for presence in feed and food.
  • Hexabromocyclododecane, HBCDD – Brominated industrial chemical, used as flame retardant, especially in polystyrene, including insulation boards. Classed as a persistent bioaccumulative and toxic substance and also as a substance of very high concern under the EU chemicals law, REACH, recommended for designation as a Persistent Organic Pollutant under the Stockholm Convention. Possibly toxic to reproduction in humans.
  • Heptachlor/Heptachlor epoxide – Organochlorine insecticide, no longer authorized for use in the EU, but secondary emissions possible. Classed as a Persistent Organic Pollutant under the Stockholm Convention, it is very toxic to aquatic organisms; possibly or probably carcinogenic to humans, possibly endocrine disruptive.
  • Perfluorooctanesulfonic acid or perfluorooctane sulfonate, PFOS – Industrial chemical, used in hydraulic aviation fluids, photography, electroplating. Present in many existing products, especially textiles. Classed as a persistent bioaccumulative and toxic substance and as a Persistent Organic Pollutant under the Stockholm Convention. Toxic to animals especially mammals. Possible carcinogen in humans; possible effects on thyroid function.
  • Quinoxyfen – Fungicide, used mainly on cereals, grape vines. Classed as “very persistent and very bioaccumulative.” Accumulates in sediments.
  • Terbutryn – Biocide, used especially in coatings for buildings, as preservative. Toxic especially to algae and aquatic plants.
  • The European Union is party to international water protection treaties, such as the Helsinki Convention, the Barcelona Convention, and the Paris Convention, which require the elimination of all hazardous substances to water bodies within one generation, 25 years, to be achieved by 2020.

    Copyright Environment News Service (ENS) 2012. All rights reserved.