EU needs to tackle chemical pollution of our waters


Time to act for our health and the environment 

Our quality of life is dependent on clean, healthy water, yet European waterways are threatened by diverse sources of contamination. Urban and agricultural run-off, industrial waste, inadequately or partially treated wastewater discharges, are only a few examples of water contamination.The European Union developed a wide-ranging set of policies and laws to protect marine and freshwater resources both in terms of quality and quantity. Today, we are proud to announce that we have joined an alliance of EU environmental and health civil society organisations to endorse a joint statement on the revision of the lists of surface and groundwater pollutants.

For more than 20 years now, Surfrider Foundation Europe has been investigating on the ground how water pollution is compromising our right to enjoy a healthy environment and has been advocating for the need to protect the wellbeing of the blue community to decision-makers.  

A list of pollutants that urgently needs to be monitored at European level 

The Water Framework Directive is the EU’s main legal instrument to protect all European ground and surface waters. The Directive has a direct impact on the management of coastal waters as well on the implementation of marine legislation. It establishes a list of so-called priority substances that need to be monitored. Related standards are defined to ensure the reduction of their emissions or, in certain cases, their phasing out. Similarly, the Groundwater Directive sets standards for pesticides and nitrates and defines some thresholds for certain specific substances to minimize the pollution of groundwater.

Despite the fact that these lists of pollutants should be reviewed every six years, they have not been updated since 2013 and 2014 for surface and groundwater respectively. The EU’s Zero Pollution Action Plan that was launched in 2021 to fight against air, water and soil pollution aims to address the long overdue revision of these lists. On the 26th of Octobre, the Commission will be releasing its proposal for an updated list. We call for the addition of new substances to the list. Substances sharing similar properties should be capped with a maximum threshold concentration for the group. This includes PFAS (a group of toxic ‘forever chemicals’ that are not removed by regular water treatment), bisfenols (plastics additives known to disrupt the hormonal system of humans and wildlife), the pesticide groups neonicotinoids and pyrethroids (substances literally designed to kill) as well as antibiotics (contributing to antimicrobial resistance).

The current situation of our water bodies calls for a better management of chemical pollution 

Freshwater and ocean pollution are one. The protection of our blue spaces across Europe are impacted by measures undertaken upstream. In fact, studies highlight that land-based pollution, especially from nutrients and hazardous substances, represent one of the main threats to ocean protection. Even though some progress has been observed over the years, water pollution remains a core environmental challenge for the EU. Twenty years after the adoption of the WFD, we observe that less than 40% of Europe’s rivers, lakes, coastal and transitional waters are considered to be in good chemical status.

Moreover, these figures do not reflect the full picture of EU water pollution either. The chemical status assessed under the WFD is only done so against a small fraction of the substances present in the environment and many substances of high concern are not addressed. New substances are being put on the market at an increasing pace. Furthermore, individual chemicals we are exposed to on a daily basis may trigger different adverse effects, known as mixture effects, when interacting with other chemicals at the same time. These effects are currently not taking into account in the standards of the listed pollutants.

Clean water is central to life. It is the basis of any healthy ocean. Now is the time to act to for a future-proof European water protection framework focusing on pollution reduction at source, benefitting our ecosystems, citizens and recreational water users.

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