The EU Commission’s proposed new rules to limit air and water pollution target a wide range of common chemicals and their producers, while making it easier for citizens to sue polluters for the health impacts of air pollution.
For some, the proposed rules go too far—and for others, not far enough.
The draft rules, released on October 26th, cut limits on air pollution by more than half, to align more closely with World Health Organization guidelines.
They would also enshrine in regulation the right for citizens to claim damages for the health effects of air pollution and to be represented collectively by NGOs. Air pollution and nanoparticles are known to contribute to a host of health problems including increasing the risk of stroke.
The rules would also update the Urban Wastewater Treatment Directive first put in place in 1991.
Most significantly, the draft rules add 25 substances to the list of pollutants, extends the ‘polluter pays’ principle to their removal of waste water, and requires tracking of industrial pollution “at the source.”
The new pollutants include Per- and Polyfluorinated Substances (PFAS)—a large group of ‘forever chemicals’ common in cookware, clothing, furniture, and cosmetics—as well as many pesticides, the plasticiser Bisphenol A, and common drugs such as painkillers, anti-inflammatories, and antibiotics. According to the commission, 92% of toxic micro-pollutants in wastewater come from pharmaceuticals and cosmetic products.
The commission estimates that by 2040, 27% of the €3.8 billion annual cost of managing urban wastewater would be covered by industrial polluters, principally pharmaceutical and cosmetics companies.
The rules also mandate significant changes to the way wastewater is processed and monitored, requiring monitoring for microplastics and viruses such as COVID-19, recapturing phosphorus to be reused in fertilisers, and promoting the reuse of treated wastewater.
For wastewater companies, the measures are a step in the right direction, but aren’t tough enough on chemical producers. Companies responsible for wastewater also warn that implementing the new rules will be expensive.
EurEau (the European Federation of National Associations of Water Services, representing water service providers from 30 countries) considered the draft rules ineffective in forcing manufacturers and chemical companies to pay quarterly for pollution clean-up.
“[I]t is a lukewarm endorsement of Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) schemes,” EurEau said in a statement. “We need these provisions to have teeth, as without effective EPR schemes, there will be no financing of quaternary treatment.” ‘Quaternary treatment’ is the more advanced form of wastewater treatment, often involving filtration or oxidation, to remove parts per million or parts per billion pollutants.
EurEau also wants the EU to go a step further and ban ‘forever chemicals,’ such as PFAS altogether, as there is no way currently of removing them from water.
“We call on decision makers to ensure that these new quality standards are tackled at the source. This is particularly relevant for PFAS for which no suitable removal technology exists at the level of urban wastewater treatment plants. Given this, we are calling for a full ban of PFAS. We see this as the only way to meet the thresholds set out in European legislation,” said EurEau Secretary General, Oliver Loebel.
But the pharmaceutical industry thinks the rules go too far.
Kirsty Reid, director of science policy at the European Federation of Pharmaceutical Industries and Associations told the Financial Times that the model was “discriminatory,” claiming pharmaceuticals only contribute a fraction of the micro pollutants found in water. She also warned that they could make drugs such as Ibuprofen, included in the new list of pollutants, more expensive.
EurEau also warns that customers will end up paying for the increased costs of water treatment and that upgrading infrastructure to meet new standards will require additional financing for the next thirty years.
The commission estimates upgrading wastewater treatment will increase costs by 3.8%, but offers a return on investment of “over €6.6 billion a year, with a positive cost-benefit ratio in each Member State.”
The rules also extend the obligation to treat wastewater to cities of more than 1,000 residents, while current regulations only include cities of 2,000 people or more. Raw or poorly treated sewage from urban sites reaching rivers and oceans is a widespread problem in Europe.
The proposal still has to be vetted by the EU Parliament and the council of ministers and is not expected to go into effect until 2024, at the earliest.