Ibuprofen and chemicals from personal care products found in surprising concentrations as part of EU water quality research
By Summit Voice
SUMMIT COUNTY — After a major in-depth analysis of organic pollutants in four major European river basins, scientists concluded that pesticides are an even bigger problem than previously assumed. At least 38 percent of the substances studied are present in concentrations high enough to affect aquatic organisms.
Most of the substances classified as a risk to the environment in the study were pesticides and the majority of these are not on the European list of priority substances which have to be monitored regularly. As a result, the scientists said there is an urgent need to update the EU water framework directive. The study, published last week in the journal Science of the Total Environment, clearly shows that contamination by organic chemicals is a problem throughout Europe.
The goal of the EU Water Framework Directive is achieve high environmental quality in surface and groundwater sources by 2015. The chemical status will be assessed based on a list of 33 so-called priority pollutants. Since more than 14 million chemicals are on the market and more than 100,000 of these are produced on an industrial scale, agencies have to confine their monitoring to a manageable number of pollutants. Throughout Europe scientists are therefore working on methods to establish which pollutants should be used in the standards.
The rivers in the study were the Elbe, the Danube, the Schelde and the Llobregat. One of the most frequently registered compounds was diethylhexyl phthalate (DEHP), a chemically-produced softener which may impair fertility and will therefore banned in the EU starting 2015. Also found frequently were bisphenol A (BPA), which may also impair fertility, and diclofenac and ibuprofen, two pharmaceutical substances used commonly in painkillers.
The scientists classified a total of 73 compounds as potential priority pollutants. Around two thirds of these are pesticides. The most problematic pesticides were diazinon, which is already prohibited in Germany and Austria, as well as azoxystrobin and terbuthylazine, which are still allowed in Central Europe.
“Neither of these pesticides is on the list of 33 priority pollutants, which have to be monitored by authorities throughout the EU,” said researcher Dr. C. Peter von der Ohe. “Terbuthylazine is a compound that is structurally closely related to the priority pollutants simazine and atrazine, which may not be applied any more. This is a nice example how small structural modifications of chemical products may apparently improve the chemical status without mitigating any hazards to the aquatic ecosystems.”
“We were also surprised that substances previously classified as harmless, such as HHCB, which is used as a synthetic musk fragrance in personal care products, are present in the environment in alarming concentrations,” said Dr. Werner Brack. “In our opinion the development of the Water Framework Directive should ensure that in future not only the presence of chemical substances but also their effects are monitored,” Brack said.