European Commission makes steps to tackle water pollution but falls short on chemical mixtures

Released today, the revised EU rules for clean water target pollutants of emerging concern but lack teeth to address chemical cocktails effects, warns the EEB.

The European Commission released a set of initiatives today [1] to speed up the transition towards a zero-pollution and toxic-free environment. The EEB welcomes the Zero Pollution package, including the Urban Wastewater Treatment Directive and the Updated lists of surface and groundwater pollutants, as a potential step in the right direction but stressed that much more needs to be done to get to a safe and clean environment. 

“Science is clear about the urgency to tackle all kinds of pollution and the Commission’s plan to tackle pollutants of emerging concern in our waters such as pharmaceuticals is much needed and, if anything, is overdue. The EU has committed to achieve zero pollution by 2050 and we need a speedy adoption of these pieces of legislation as well as an effective roll out across the EU, including making the polluters pay”, said Sergiy Moroz, Policy Manager for Biodiversity and Water at the EEB

The European Environmental Bureau welcomes the revision of the rules related to urban wastewater treatment including the new requirement for producers of cosmetics and pharmaceuticals to share the costs associated to advanced treatment to remove micropollutants. The EEB also welcomes the Commission’s proposal to add 24 individual substances and a group of PFAS to the lists of problematic water pollutants that need to be more strictly controlled across the EU. Apart from PFAS, those include a range of pesticides, such as glyphosate, and several pharmaceuticals such as anti-inflammatory drugs. All these substances have well-documented negative effects on the aquatic environment.  

However, the EEB stresses that the new rules do not fully address chemical mixtures and do not hold all polluters accountable.  

“The new EU rules do not fully respond to the reality of the chemical cocktails present in surface and groundwater. We urge the European Parliament and Member States to strengthen this in the Commission’s proposal and get on with the job of making our waters clean. We all deserve healthy rivers, lakes, coastal and groundwaters”, said Sara Johansson, Senior Policy Officer for Water Pollution Prevention at the EEB

The EEB believes the European Parliament and Council will need to strengthen the weaknesses of the proposals to guarantee that Europe’s waters are healthy for aquatic life and human health and to make sure that all polluters are made to pay.  

“The treatment of urban wastewater constitutes the last safeguard in the water cycle to prevent water pollution from reaching our waterways and ultimately, our Ocean. The revised UWWTD has the potential to further advance the objectives of the Zero Pollution Action Plan and achieve a toxic-free environment. We need an ambitious text addressing current and emerging threats to ecosystems and human health through concrete measures and clear obligations on the operation of treatment plants”, said Lucille Labayle, Water Quality and Health Policy Officer at Surfrider 

The EU Water Legislation should respond faster to scientific knowledge. The proposed addition of Glyphosate’s EQS to the list of Priority Substances is thus welcome, yet incomplete. To guarantee the efficient protection of our waters, this should be complemented with an EQS for its metabolite AMPA“, said Manon Rouby, Policy Officer/ Legal Adviser at PAN Europe 




Notes to editors:  


Urban Wastewater Treatment Directive 

The Urban Wastewater Treatment Directive (UWTD) text includes provisions for selected Waste Water Treatment Plants (WWTPs) to monitor and remove micropollutants and the introduction of an Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) that requires only the pharmaceutical (excluding veterinary products) and cosmetics industries to contribute financially to cover the cost of necessary upgrades. This has a large potential to reduce the load of harmful substances to receiving waters. However, the EPR covers a narrow set of sectors and should be extended to reflect the full range of micropollutants that end up in urban wastewater, this should include as a minimum biocides, pesticides and textiles industry.  

The requirement for Member States to set up locally established integrated water management plans with the aim to reduce pollution from urban runoff and combined sewer overflows, is welcomed by the EEB. It is also positive to see the emphasis on preventive measure and blue-green solutions. These include the increase of green areas and the reduction of impermeable surface, done in parallel to the collection and treatment of polluted rainwater. However, the target to reduce combined sewer overflows to 1% (of sewage volumes during dry weather) is only indicative and needs to be made legally binding. Without binding targets, the management plans risk being empty shells.  

The EEB supports he reduction of nutrient releases with more stringent limit values to treat nitrogen and phosphorus. These new standards apply to all larger facilities above 100 000 p.e. but also in all facilities above 10 000 p.e. located in areas where eutrophication remains an issue.  

Finally, we welcomed the provisions that would require Member States to improve and maintain access to sanitation for all 


Updated lists of surface and groundwater pollutants  

Positive changes 

  • The EEB welcomes the addition of 24 new substances and PFAS as a group added to the lists of surface and groundwater pollutants, such as several pharmaceuticals and pesticides, including glyphosate. This would require Member States to monitor the concentration of these substances in water and take measures to ensure the threshold values are not surpassed. The standards have been updated for 16 pollutants (more stringent in 14 cases and less stringent in two cases) that had been added on the list previously, including heavy metals and industrial chemicals. 
  • The EEB welcomes the proposal to make the Ground Water Watch List mandatory (in coherence with the provisions for surface water). This will allow for coherent collection of groundwater pollution data across all member states to determine if substances are of EU-wide concern.  

Elements where improvements will be needed 

The EEB urges the European Parliament and the Council to improve the proposal in the co-decision process regarding the following elements (not exhaustive list): 

  • The Commission has not fully acted on its own commitment established in the Chemicals Strategy for Sustainability to regulate chemical substances as groups. Apart from PFAS, pharmaceuticals (for groundwater) and pesticides (for surface water), threshold values for key substance groups are missing, including neonicotinoids, pyrethroids, antibiotics, estrogenic substances and bisphenols. The listed individual substances risk being taken off the market and substituted with other with similar harmful properties, which could have been countered by a group approach. The additive effects of these substances will also be disregarded.  
  • The Commission has missed the opportunity to require the use of screening techniques to monitor mixture effects, although robust trigger values are available for estrogenic substances (‘hormones’).  
  • The existing individual pesticide threshold value for groundwater has not been revised although it is based on analytical techniques that were available since the 90s and progress has been made since. This means that for some pesticides, there will continue to be a higher threshold in groundwater than surface water, in clash with the SCHEER opinion [2] that groundwater thresholds should not surpass surface water thresholds.  


[1] European Commission Press Release European Green Deal: Commission proposes rules for cleaner air and water 

Read our Joint Statement on the revision of lists of surface and groundwater pollutants

European Commission makes steps to tackle water pollution but falls short on chemical mixtures
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