Brussels — The European Parliament’s Environment Committee voted on a Commission’s legislative proposal (1) that adds 15 new chemicals to a list of 33 identified hazardous chemicals (“priority substances list”) and sets safe concentration limits in water for them.
This is the first time that an European Commission’s proposal introduces a legally binding obligation to phase out emissions of certain chemicals by a given deadline applying the precautionary principle to the control of chemicals.
However, the European Parliament today weakened considerably the Commission’s proposal by failing to support safe concentration limits in water for three proposed pharmaceuticals - two oestrogen chemicals used in contraceptive pills and an anti-inflammatory chemical used in painkillers (2). Today’s vote allows pharmaceutical residues not to be controlled in water until a further revision of the list comes about, meaning that control mechanisms for these substances could be in place as far as in 2027.
“This is a missed opportunity for the European Parliament to send out a clear message that significant negative impacts on freshwater and marine ecosystems and ultimately humans is caused by pharmaceutical substances with endocrine disrupting properties and other emerging pollutants” says Anja Leetz, Executive Director at Health Care Without Harm Europe.
Numerous scientific studies have documented a range of detrimental impacts of pharmaceuticals upon freshwater ecosystems, also affecting birds and mammals including humans via secondary poisoning. In particular, adverse effects on sexual development and reproductive system of fishes have been documented for the two oestrogen chemicals and diclofenac has been shown to be toxic, both directly and indirectly, to a variety of vertebrate species (3).
These studies are supported by a report from the German Environment Agency, which identifies 24 pharmaceuticals for urgent action as they pose significant risk to the health of freshwater ecosystems . The Commission’s proposal was backed by a solid body of research and, as part of this prioritisation exercise, more than 2000 substances, all of which pose a risk to aquatic ecosystems, were screened but, mainly because of lack of monitoring data across EU Member States, only 15 substances were prioritized for action at EU level.
Finally, the debate so far has focused solely on end-of-pipe solutions with the proposal not considering upstream solutions for reducing concentration of pharmaceutical residues in water. It is true that upgrading wastewater treatment plants with advanced techniques that would remove not only pharmaceuticals but also other micropollutants can be costly, but there are simple and low cost upstream measures already in use in different Member States (MS) such as collection schemes for unused pharmaceuticals that EU legislation already requires MS to implement; encouraging design of green pharmaceuticals that are fully metabolized in the body and rapidly biodegrade in the environment into harmless compounds; and educating healthcare professionals to optimise medicines prescription behaviour so that only the right amount of pharmaceuticals needed is prescribed, giving priority to the least environmentally hazardous medicines.
We now call on the European Environment Ministers at the next Environment Council in December will, as a minimum, support inclusion of the three pharmaceutical substances on the priority substances list and their monitoring in lakes and rivers across Europe.