1. Introduction

1.1.         Aim of this report

Like water, chemicals are an essential part of our daily lives. However, some present risks to plants and animals living in water, or the animals eating them. The risks presented by some chemicals have been recognised for decades, while those presented by others, alone or in combination, are continually being identified. Understanding which chemicals continue to pose significant risks in or via water, and why, can help to improve controls which minimise harm.

Techniques are now available which provide integrated measures of toxicity or harm, in contrast to established chemical methods which measure particular substances. The relationship between substance and source is fundamental to the system for chemicals regulation, yet that is under strain with the thousands of chemicals in daily use. Effect-based methods, which provide an integrated measure of the “chemical health” of the aquatic environment, could therefore offer a link between the ecological and chemical status of surface water bodies under the WFD.  Describing some of these newer techniques and reviewing information about key pollutants under the WFD, this report gives both a grounding in what is known and a view of how surface waters might be better protected in future.

comments (3)

1.2.         Structure of the report

Chapter 1 sets out the structure of this report and the legal background at European and international level. We now know much more about how chemicals can cause harm to organisms in water, and an overview of current knowledge is provided in chapter 2. In particular, sublethal effects (such as problems with reproduction) and mixtures of chemicals that in combination may act to harm sensitive species. Application of the precautionary principle would imply that this knowledge is used in risk assessment, to protect both the aquatic environment and human health. Chapter 3 goes on to consider what we actually know from data reported at European level, placed in the context of reporting under the Water Framework Directive. It reviews what we know about the pressures still causing surface water bodies to fail to achieve good chemical status, including information from European emissions reporting. Chapter 4 considers approaches to tackle with chemical pollution, looking at some EU and national strategies and plans. The final chapter then draws conclusions on what further needs to be done to protect surface waters from chemical pollution.

The scope of this report is hazardous substances, such as with toxic, persistent and bioaccumlative properties, not those that act as nutrients. The focus is on substances reported at European level, rather than emerging pollutants.

comments (0)

1.3.         Context

Action to address chemical pollution of water in Europe has been taken over several decades. The precautionary principle, enshrined in the Treaty of the Functioning of the European Union, underpins the approach to policy-making when an environmental or human health hazard is uncertain and the stakes are high (EPRS, 2015). Initial efforts to reduce gross industrial pollution of rivers and seas was followed by European legislation to limit sewage pollution. Scientific and public understanding of water pollution issues has increased and reports such as EEA’s “Late lessons from early warnings” served to highlight how information could be used to better protect human health and the environment (EEA 2001 and 2013).

The EU Water Framework Directive (WFD) aims to ensure good chemical status of both surface water and groundwater bodies across Europe. For surface waters, this goal is defined by limits on the concentration of certain pollutants relevant across the EU, known as priority substances. Good chemical status means that the concentrations of all priority substances do not exceed the environmental quality standards (EQS).

Comparison of the assessment on the status and pressures on Europe’s waters under the WFD in the second cycle of River Basin Management Plan (RBMP) reporting  (EEA, 2018a) with  assessment results in the first cycle (EEA, 2012) shows marked improvements in the monitoring and classification of chemical status, with a clear reduction in water bodies in unknown chemical status. The percentage of surface water bodies in good chemical status within the EU is 38 %, while 46 % are not achieving good chemical status and 16 % of the water bodies have unknown chemical status.

In many Member States, relatively few substances are responsible for failure to achieve good chemical status. Mercury causes failure in a high number of water bodies. Omitting widespread pollution by ubiquitous priority substances including mercury, the proportion in good chemical status improves to 81 % of all water bodies, and 3 % do not achieve good chemical status and 16 % have unknown chemical status. The main pressures leading to failure of good chemical status are atmospheric deposition and discharges from urban wastewater treatment plants.

Since the first cycle of reporting of River Basin Management Plans (1st RBMPs) (EEA, 2012), Member States have made progress in tackling priority substances, significantly reducing the number of water bodies failing standards for substances such as several priority metals (cadmium, lead, and nickel) and pesticides.

The present report provides a more in-depth assessment on the key pollutants causing failure to achieve good chemical status of surface waters in the second cycle of RBMP reporting (2nd RBMPs), their sources and their ecological impacts in the aquatic environment. While surface waters in the WFD also covers transitional and coastal waters, we focus here on rivers and lakes.

In relation to hazardous substances, there has considerable activity in Europe, starting with the Programme of action of the European Communities on the environment in 1973 (EC, 1973). The 1976 Dangerous Substances Directive 76/464/EEC was implemented by Member States with action programmes on emissions and quality objectives as well as reporting activities. The Water Framework Directive (2000) provided an overarching approach to water management, including European and national prioritisation of pollutants, the Environmental Quality Standards Directive (EC, 2008a). EEA contributed with publications such as “Hazardous substances in Europe’s fresh and marine waters” (EEA, 2011), European Waters 2012 (EEA, 2012) and ETC-ICM technical reports 3/2015 on hazardous substances and 3/2017 on emissions into Europe’s Waters.

comments (2)

Box 1.1

Box 1.1: When pollution protection breaks down – cyanide

Cyanide is very toxic, inhibiting respiratory processes by irreversible binding to blood cells. It has been used in gold and silver mining, pigments (Prussian blue), biocides and in the production of textiles and pharmaceuticals. Natural processes create cyanides in fungi, plants and bacteria. Most cyanides in water originate from industry. Restrictions limit their use in the EU, owing to their high toxicity.


Serious pollution by cyanide occurred after an accident at a gold mine in Romania in 2000. Near Baia Mare a dam holding 300 000 m³ contaminated water with 100 t cyanide spilled into the Someş River, which flows into the Tisza (Ogul 2015). The spill contaminated the drinking water supplies of over 2.5 million Hungarians with catastrophic environmental consequences, killing over 1400 t fish.

comments (2)

Just as WFD provides a way to manage water across administrative boundaries, WFD chemicals bridges the legislation covering aquatic environment and chemicals source control. Considering the monitoring evidence collected under WFD can tell us about the effectiveness of source control legislation for the aquatic environment. This feedback for chemicals in water addresses a key information need, since most existing legislation for chemicals source control has no monitoring (e.g. REACH, biocides). It is also an opportunity to highlight the links along the Drivers-Pressures-State-Impacts-Responses (DPSIR) chain from the sources all the way into the aquatic environment, and possibly identify gaps in reporting obligations.

The report draws on additional data sources in particular from other reporting streams, e.g. for the European Pollutant Release and Transfer Register (E-PRTR) and the Urban Waste Water Treatment Directive. It also draws on the Water Information System for Europe State of Environment (WISE-SoE) reporting for emissions.  Data for EEA member countries outside the EU have been incorporated where possible.

Monitoring requirements typically address well-known pollutants such as mercury, lead etc. This means that the availability of data for these substances should be relatively high, while information for most, more recently identified pollutants is much lower. Over recent years, scientific concern has risen in relation to the potential effects of mixtures of chemicals on aquatic life. There is particular concern in relation to substances designed to kill, such as pesticides, where combinations of substances at low concentration can be present in the same time and place. Advances in chemical analysis, using biological effects methods to take these combinations into account, can provide ways to identify risks to the environment.

Recent research linking chemical contamination with ecological effects in the aquatic environment is included in chapter 2, in particular from the European FP7 Research Project “Solutions for present and future emerging pollutants in land and water resources management” (SOLUTIONS)[1]. Some consideration of the research into new methods for chemical assessment, such as non-targeted screening and other integrative monitoring methods, is provided.

comments (0)

1.4.         EU Policy context for chemicals in surface waters

Water Framework Directive:

The WFD entered into force on 22 December 2000, establishing a framework for the protection of inland surface waters, transitional waters, coastal waters and groundwater. Among the objectives of the WFD is the aim towards enhanced protection and improvement of the aquatic environment, through specific measures for priority substances. Priority substances are set out in the Environmental Quality Standards Directive (EC, 2008a), as substances presenting a significant risk to or via the aquatic environment. 

The requirement to achieve good status in surface waters under the WFD means meeting certain standards for ecological and chemical status. “Good chemical status” means that concentrations of all priority substances in a water body are below the environmental quality standard (EQS) i.e. failure of one EQS means the water body does not achieve good status. These standards are set at European level. More local chemical standards, for substances discharged in significant quantities, can be set by Member States as “River Basin Specific Pollutants” (RBSPs) and contribute to the classification of ecological status.

Under the WFD, the Environmental Quality Standards Directive (EC, 2008a) concerns priority substances in surface waters. It defined environmental quality standards (EQS) which apply across the EU for the chemical status of surface waters, intended to limit the occurrence of certain chemical substances which pose a significant risk to the environment. Regular review of this directive includes review of the list of priority substances (Annex 10) to the WFD. This was firstly done in 2013 when 12 substances where added to the former 33 priority substances (and substance groups). Among the priority substances of the WFD some are defined as priority hazardous substances, which should be “phased out”, i.e. all discharges, emissions and losses must be ceased[2].

Art. 7 of the WFD is targeted at protecting human health. If the drinking water standard is exceeded at the tap and water was taken from surface waters, specific measures need to be taken for the affected water bodies to guarantee compliance with the drinking water standard. This approach updated the drinking water standard for pesticides and biocides, set in 1980.

comments (2)

Other EU legislation on water protection concerning chemicals:

The Urban Waste Water Treatment Directive (EEC, 1991a) obliged Member States to collect and treat wastewater from households and small businesses, and aimed to reduce organic pollution as well as nitrate and phosphorus discharges from these sources. It ended the dumping of sewage sludge to surface waters in 1998, reducing a significant source of hazardous substances in water.
The Nitrates Directive (EEC, 1991b) regulated fertilizers and served to reduce nutrient inputs from agriculture, especially from intensive livestock forming. (Nitrate is not a pollutant covered in this report.)
The Drinking Water Directive (EEC, 1998) set special quality requirements for water for human consumption. It set concentration limits for a range of hazardous substances, including total “pesticides”, benzo(a)pyrene, cadmium, lead, mercury, nickel and PAHs, in drinking water. Some of these limits were based on analytical detection limits at the time.
The Marine Strategy Framework Directive (MSFD) (EC, 2008b) defined the target of achieving or maintaining a good environmental status of the EU’s marine waters by 2020. For pollution, it sets two qualitative descriptions of the marine environment when good environmental status has been achieved. Descriptor 8 sets out that concentrations of contaminants give no effects and Descriptor 9 that contaminants in seafood are below safe levels.

In addition to the water protection directives described above, there are various other polices and regulations that are not specifically aimed at protecting the environmental medium “water”, but are significant concerning chemicals in water:

The Industrial Emissions Directive (EC, 2010) sets out rules on integrated prevention and control of pollution arising from selected industrial activities.
The PRTR Regulation (EC, 2006b) regulated the reporting requirements and supply of data to the EU for a European Pollutant Register, providing access to information on pollution. Operators must report emissions of pollutants if those exceed specified thresholds.
The Plants Protection Products Regulation (EC, 2009a) set out rules for the authorisation of plant protection products and their marketing, use and control.
The Directive on the sustainable use of pesticides (EC, 2009b) aims at reducing the risks and impacts of pesticide use on human health and the environment, and promoting the use of integrated pest management and alternatives such as non-chemical approaches.
The Biocide Regulation on the marketing and use of biocide products (EU, 2012).
The Sewage Sludge Directive (EEC, 1986) regulated the use of sewage sludge in agriculture to prevent harmful effects.
The 7th Environment Action Plan (EU, 2013a) set the objective that by 2020, use of plant protection products should not have any harmful effects on human health or unacceptable influence on the environment, and such products should be used sustainably.
The Medicinal Products Regulation (EC, 2004) laid down Community procedures for the authorisation, supervision and pharmacovigilance of medicinal products for human and veterinary use.
REACH (EC, 2007) addressed production and use of chemical substances and regulates the assessment of their impacts on human health and the environment.
The Classification, Labelling and Packaging Regulation (CLP) for chemicals substances and mixtures complemented REACH (EC, 2008c).
The Strategic Environmental Assessment Directive (EC, 2001) defined, that for large programmes, environmental impact assessment needs to be applied at an early stage of planning with a view to promoting sustainable development.  
The basis for environmental impact assessment (EIA) under European Community law provided the EIA Directive (EU, 2011). It prescribed the individual process stages of EIA and the project types for which an EIA must be carried out.
Regarding facilities that handle substances dangerous to water, an important part is also played by the EU Directive on the control of major-accident hazards involving dangerous substances (EEC, 1982), the Construction Products Directive (EC, 1989) and the standardisation procedure under CEN (Comité Européen de Normalisation).

EEA member countries which are not members of the EU with environment and water law comparable to those with the EU include Iceland, Liechtenstein, Norway and Switzerland.

In addition, international agreements exist to limit the harm caused by particular chemicals:

The Stockholm POPs Convention[3], effective from May 2004, aims to eliminate or restrict the production and use of persistent organic pollutants (POPs), such as several polybrominated diphenylethers and several hexachlorocyclohexane isomers (including lindane), which are addressed later in this report.
The Minamata Convention[4] on mercury came into force in 2017, and is designed to protect human health and the environment from anthropogenic emissions and releases of mercury and mercury compounds.
The International Commission for the Protection of the Danube River[5] is a collaboration of 14 countries. It aims to promote and coordinate sustainable and equitable water management, including conservation, improvement and rational use of waters for the benefit of the Danube River Basin countries and their people.
The Convention on the Protection of the Rhine[6] is a cooperation between the 5 countries bordering the Rhine river, aiming at the preservation, improvement and sustainable development of the ecosystem.
The International Commission for the Protection of the Elbe River[7] aims to promote the use of water, achieve the most natural ecosystem possible and decrease the burden on the North Sea.

This long list demonstrates the critical role that water plays in the environment and human health.

[1] http:www.solutions-project.eu/project/
[2] While introducing this comprehensive concept, the WFD repealed the former Dangerous Substances Directive (EC, 2006a).
[3] http://www.pops.int/ (31/03/2018)
[4] http://www.mercuryconvention.org/ (31/03/2018)
[5] https://www.icpdr.org/main/ (28/082018)
[6] https://www.iksr.org/en/international-cooperation/legal-basis/convention/  (28/08/2018)  
[7] https://www.ikse-mkol.org/en/ikse/fokus-2015/  (28/082018)

comments (7)