A missed opportunity to control pharmaceutical residues in European waters

Brussels — European Member States (MS) have formally voted on the agreement reached with the European Parliament (EP) and the European Commission (EC) on the EC legislative proposal on priority substances in water (1). The agreed text will add 12 new chemicals to a list of 33 identified hazardous chemicals (“priority substances list”). However, the European institutions failed to include three pharmaceuticals in the priority substances list: two oestrogen chemicals used in contraceptive pills and an anti-inflammatory chemical used in painkillers (2), changing considerably the initial Commission’s proposal that had already been weakened by the EP Environment Committee. Pharmaceutical residues will remain uncontrolled and will not be closely monitored in water systems with Member States being obliged to do so only once a year.

“It is particularly worrying that the European Union missed the opportunity to act on the significant negative impacts of pharmaceutical residues on aquatic ecosystems and ultimately human health, especially when these substances have strong endocrine disrupting properties and can be highly toxic”

— Grazia Cioci, Policy and Development Director, HCWH Europe

Numerous scientific studies have documented the adverse effects on sexual development and the reproductive system of fishes by the two oestrogen chemicals, whilst diclofenac has been shown to be both directly and indirectly toxic, to a variety of vertebrate species (3). In addition, the Commission’s initial proposal to prioritise 15 substances was based on a solid body of research that screened more than 2000 substances that could pose a risk to aquatic ecosystems. Clearly yesterday's vote does not give credibility to the scientific research nor the EC prioritisation exercise.

Moreover, a study published last month by the French organisation Fondation France Libertés and the consumers magazine 60 Millions de Consommateurs brought to the attention of French consumers that pharmaceutical residues were present in one out of five bottled waters on the shelves of French supermarkets (4). Whilst scientists say the contamination is small and water remains safe, there is concern for "potential cocktail effects" for drinkers.
With yesterday's vote, the hazardousness of the three pharmaceuticals is not recognised, and the door for controlling pharmaceutical residues in European waters and protecting the environment and human health from exposure to these substances or even a mixture of them is closed for many years to come until the directive will be revised again. The agreed text will now be voted by the EP Environment Committee and by all Members of the European Parliament in Plenary but no changes are expected.

(1) Proposal for a Directive amending the WFD and EQSD (COM(2011)876)
(2) The three pharmaceutical substances to be included in the priority substances list are: 17-alpha-ethinylestradiol (EE2)17-beta-estradiol (EE) and diclofenac.
(3) EEA Technical report No 1 (2010): Pharmaceuticals in the Environment.
(4) France Libertes news article (25/03/2013)

Health Care Without Harm is an international coalition of more than 500 organizations in 53 countries, working to transform the health care sector worldwide, without compromising patient safety or care, so that it is ecologically sustainable and no longer a source of harm to public health and the environment. Visit the HCWH website for more information.