Is it possible to remove most of pharmaceuticals from waste water ?

Effects of recirculation in a three-tank pilot-scale system for pharmaceutical removal with powdered activated carbon

The release of pharmaceutically active compounds (PhACs) in waste water from treatment plants (WWTPs) is currently not regulated anywhere in the world, with the exception of a few plants in Switzerland. Yet thousands of PhACs or their by-products — excreted by humans — can be found in waste water and some of these may harm biodiversity when released into waterways. For example diclofenac and oxazepam may have negative effects on aquatic species.

This study presents a pilot design that seeks to deliver an alternative to less effective technologies, in particular by optimising the use of activated carbon, Science for Environment Policy reports.


The removal of pharmaceutically active compounds by powdered activated carbon (PAC) in municipal wastewater is a promising solution to the problem of polluted recipient waters. Today, an efficient design strategy is however lacking with regard to high-level overall, and specific, substance removal in the large scale. The performance of PAC-based removal of pharmaceuticals was studied in pilot-scale with respect to the critical parameters; contact time and PAC dose using one PAC product selected by screening in bench-scale. The goal was a minimum of 95% removal of the pharmaceuticals present in the evaluated municipal wastewater. A set of 21 pharmaceuticals was selected from an initial 100 due to their high occurrence in the effluent water of two selected wastewater treatment plants (WWTPs) in Sweden, whereof candidates discussed for future EU regulation directives were included. By using recirculation of PAC over a treatment system using three sequential contact tanks, a combination of the benefits of powdered and granular carbon performance was achieved. The treatment system was designed so that recirculation could be introduced to any of the three tanks to investigate the effect of recirculation on the adsorption performance. This was compared to use of the setup, but without recirculation. A higher degree of pharmaceutical removal was achieved in all recirculation setups, both overall and with respect to specific substances, as compared to without recirculation. Recirculation was tested with nominal contact times of 30, 60 and 120 min and the goal of 95% removal could be achieved already at the shortest contact times at a PAC dose of 10-15 mg/L. In particular, the overall removal could be increased even to 97% and 99%, at 60 and 120 min, respectively, when the recirculation point was the first tank. Recirculation of PAC to either the first or the second contact tank proved to be comparable, while a slightly lower performance was observed with recirculation to the third tank. With regards to individual substances, clarithromycin and diclofenac were ubiquitously removed according to the set goal and in contrast, a few substances (fluconazole, irbesartan, memantine and venlafaxine) required specific settings to reach an acceptable removal.

Much pollution can be eliminated, and pollution prevention can be highly cost-effective

How to control and mitigate the effects of pollution on public health ; The Lancet Commission on pollution and health

Pollution is the world’s largest environmental cause of disease and premature death. The Lancet Commission on pollution and health brought together leaders, researchers and practitioners from the fields of pollution management, environmental health and sustainable development to elucidate the full health and economic costs of air, water, chemical and soil pollution worldwide.

By analysing existing and emerging data, the Commission reveals that pollution makes a significant and underreported contribution to the global burden of disease, particularly in low- and middle-income countries.

The Commission also provides six recommendations to policymakers and other stakeholders looking for efficient, cost-effective and actionable approaches to pollution mitigation and prevention, Science for Environment Policy reports.

Six Lancet Commission recommendations

  1. Make pollution prevention a high priority nationally and internationally and integrate it into country and city planning processes.
  2. Mobilise, increase and focus the funding and international technical support dedicated to pollution control.
  3. Establish systems to monitor pollution and its effects on health.
  4. Build multi-sectoral partnerships for pollution control.
  5. Integrate pollution mitigation into planning processes for NCDs.
  6. Research pollution and pollution control.

Read The Lancet Commission on pollution and health, October 19, 2017.

How does the law protect our environment ?

Environmental compliance assurance and combatting environmental crime

The development of detailed, often ambitious laws designed to protect the environment over the past 30 years has been a striking phenomenon of our age. Laws in the statute book may provide some comfort but without effective implementation and enforcement they are meaningless. A Member of the European Parliament once remarked “we are good midwives but bad mothers” — implying that legislators often pay more attention to passing new laws than considering the equally challenging issues of implementation, and what happens after the law has come into force.

The potential gap between the formal law and its enforcement is seen in many fields of law, but it raises particular challenges in the field of environmental protection. In areas of law such as competition, social security, or consumer protections there are clearly defined victims with legal interests who can and will ensure that the law is enforced. In contrast, the environment is often unowned in legal terms — with the consequence that the environment dies in silence, it has been said. The responsibility for its legal protection lies largely on public authorities — the police, local authorities, or specialised regulatory agencies — often under competing policy priorities and severe resource constraints.

Yet, as this Thematic Issue demonstrates, in recent years far greater attention is being paid to the question of enforcement of environmental law — how it should most effectively be implemented, how best to ensure compliance, and how best to deal with breaches of environmental law where they occur.

These issues can raise delicate political issues at both national and regional levels. Deciding how to employ resources and respond to breaches of environmental law often involves considerable discretion amongst enforcement authorities, and national and local administrations have their own traditions and culture in which they operate. Imposing over-elaborate, top-down solutions may therefore be inappropriate. Within the European Union, environmental legislation has generally left the question of enforcement to the discretion of Member States, and it is rare for EU Regulations or Directives to specify the type of sanction that must be employed. The Court of Justice of the European Union has been equally reticent to trespass on the discretion of national authorities in this context, and simply relied upon the general principle that any sanctions employed must be effective, proportionate, and dissuasive.

An important exception to this picture was the passing of the EU Environmental Crime Directive in 2008, requiring that certain types of conduct in relation to EU environmental law must at least be defined as a crime by Member States. The proposal to do so was the subject of legal challenge before the Court of Justice on the grounds that there was no legal competence under the environmental provisions of the European Treaty to do so. Eventually the Court held that if there was a genuine problem of enforcement, this was the proper subject of a European Directive, but recognised the sensitivities of Member States by holding that the question of the size of penalties was a matter of national not European Union law.

Another very important legal development was the decision of the European Court in 2005 in a case taken by the European Commission against Ireland in respect of illegally operated and unlicensed waste sites. Until then enforcement actions concerning the failure by a Member State to implement EU environmental obligations in practice had been confined to specific examples. Here the Court held for the first time that the numerous cases of illegally operated sites represented a systematic failure in the administrative system for enforcement, and that this represented a breach of its obligations under EU law by the Member State.

EU environmental law, such as the 2010 Industrial Emissions Directive, is beginning to contain requirements concerning inspection and enforcement, though still couched in carefully drafted language so as not to over-intrude on areas thought appropriate for national or local discretion. The Make It Work programme, initiated in 2015 by Germany, the Netherlands and the United Kingdom has now drafted common principles on issues of inspection and enforcement which are recommend to be included in future environmental legislation.

Against this background, the papers highlighted in this Thematic Issue provide important insights for policymakers and for enforcement, and reflect the contribution of recent research in this area. Four particular themes emerge — the value of emerging networks of enforcement bodies, the need to exploit new technologies and strategies, the use of appropriate sanctions and the added value of a compliance assurance conceptual framework reflecting the interaction between three main functions — compliance promotion, compliance monitoring (inspections/surveillance) and enforcement.

Environmental networks

We have seen in recent years the growing development of various networks of enforcement agencies, at local, national, regional and international levels. Cross-border cooperation may be essential for issues such as transboundary pollution, the illegal transport of waste, and the illegal trade in endangered species. But the exchange of views and experience at national level where authorities may handle similar problems in different ways may also provide an invaluable learning experience.

Research is now beginning to attempt to evaluate the effectiveness of these networks, and how they might be improved in the future. Contacts, the development of good relationships, sharing best practice, and access to information can provide real benefits, but there are also challenges in funding, participation, and effective administration of the networks. The 2011 survey by one of the earliest such networks, INECE (International Network on Environment Compliance and Enforcement), covered some 10 networks around the world and highlighted a number of critical factors to ensure success. These include the need to prioritise, ensure adequate funding and the translation of key materials. Effective communication and the continuing evaluation of the performance network were equally vital. Ireland has provided a useful example of a national network — the Network for Ireland’s Environmental Compliance and Enforcement (NIECE) established in 2004, operating in the field of waste disposal and involving a national regulator and 34 local authorities. This helped to provide guidance and training for local enforcement officers, improving coordination and consistency in approach. The NIECE appeared to lead to a dramatic improvement in the quality of local authority inspection plans in a short space of time — in 2007 less than a quarter of such plans were given an ‘A’ rating but, by 2009, 85% received such a rating.

Using resources more effectively

Regulators and enforcement agencies never have unlimited budgets, and these days are normally operating under increasing financial constraints. This means developing more effective approaches and strategies. Risk-based enforcement strategies based on focusing efforts on activities judged to be the most problematic have emerged as one response, which is reflected in recent legislation such as the EU Industrial Emissions Directive.

Carrying out the same inspection levels for all industrial installations in a sector may not be the most effective use of scarce resources; it is preferable to give a lighter touch to those considered most compliant, while drilling down on the more problematic. But it is important to first ensure that there is public understanding and confidence in such an approach. Risk assessments are never foolproof. Members of the public who have not been engaged in the development of risk-based strategies are unlikely to react positively to a pollution incident on a site where there have been few inspections because the installation had been previously judged to have little risk, for example.

Against a background of resource constraints, new ways of using technology and data are likely to prove important. The Environment Agency in England provides an example of an intelligence-led policy in the field of illegal export of wastes, using data-collection technologies in a more focused way. The resolution of satellites is becoming ever finer, and a leading British legal expert in the use of space technologies as evidence highlights the potential of such technology to alert authorities of potential breaches of law, to monitor high-risk offenders to ensure compliance, and to check historical data. This research emphasises the need for lawyers to engage with Earth observation specialists so that the disciplines can more fully understand one another’s needs and constraints. A Belgian judge notes that Earth observation techniques are unlikely to replace ground-based monitoring and will have little to offer in some areas of environmental law, but nevertheless have a potential that is yet to be fully exploited.

Appropriate sanctions

The 2008 EU Environmental Crime Directive highlighted the potential significance of criminal law in dealing with breaches of environmental law, especially for those jurisdictions where there had been a heavy reliance of administrative penalties in dealing with regulatory breaches. Studies here include the use of imprisonment as a sanction, and argue for the greater involvement and acknowledgement of victims in the process.

Yet the message of many recent studies is that reliance on a single form of sanction is unlikely to be the most effective approach. A mixture of administrative and criminal enforcement is preferable, but since in many jurisdictions this is likely to involve different agencies (including the police), the development of new coordination strategies will be vital.

It is clear, however, that we still have little robust, comparative data on the real effectiveness of different forms of sanctions — either in terms of their impact on the individuals or business involved in the breach of environmental law, or on how they affect the internal costs of regulators and the public sector, including the courts. This needs to be a continuing area for future research and monitoring.

Regulatory agencies are likely to be under increasing scrutiny for their cost-effectiveness and efficiency. In terms of public accountability, it is important to have performance indicators based on activity such as the number and type of enforcement actions taken. But we must not let these requirements obscure the reason we have environmental law and regulation in the first place. Outcome measures relating to the quality of the environment being protected should be a central aspiration, and studies here indicate how they are being developed in some jurisdictions. But it is not an easy exercise. It is all too easy for outcome measures to become goal-orientated targets which then over-dominate the enforcement body’s strategy and thinking.

The more recent emphasis on implementation and enforcement is to be welcomed, but there are clearly many areas in which the research community has much to offer. Regulators and government should value the input of independent research to improve their own understanding and performance, and work closely with research bodies to help identify key issues that need exploring. Legislative bodies such as the Council of the European Union or UK Parliamentary Select Committees should systematically evaluate the actual implementation of environmental legislation so that improvements can be made to the enforcement of existing laws, and lessons learnt in the design of new legislation. The environmental challenges facing our society are profound, but the signs from the recent research identified in this Thematic Issue give some room for optimism. …

… Read Science for Environment Policy Thematic Issue, Environmental compliance assurance and combatting environmental crime, including an editorial from Professor Richard Macrory.

Pesticides from agricultural land use : a major threat to small streams and their biodiversity

Large Scale Risks from Agricultural Pesticides in Small Streams (in Germany)

Small streams are important refuges for biodiversity, yet knowledge of the effects of agricultural pesticides on these freshwater bodies is limited.

Researchers have used national monitoring data to determine the number of small streams in Germany where regulatory acceptable concentrations (RACs) of pesticides are exceeded. An analysis of data covering almost 500 pesticides and over 2 000 small streams suggests that agricultural land use is a major contributor of pesticides to streams. Overall, RACs were exceeded at 26% of sampled streams, and exceedances were 3.7 times more likely if a stream was near agricultural land.

“This finding may have implications for environmental monitoring and agrienvironmental measures”,

Science for Environment Policy explains, 5 June 2018.

Study Abstract

Small streams are important refuges for biodiversity. In agricultural areas, they may be at risk from pesticide pollution. However, most related studies have been limited to a few streams on the regional level, hampering extrapolation to larger scales.

We quantified risks as exceedances of regulatory acceptable concentrations (RACs) and used German monitoring data to quantify the drivers thereof and to assess current risks in small streams on a large scale. The data set was comprised of 1 766 104 measurements of 478 pesticides (including metabolites) related to 24 743 samples from 2301 sampling sites. We investigated the influence of agricultural land use, catchment size, as well as precipitation and seasonal dynamics on pesticide risk taking also concentrations below the limit of quantification into account. The exceedances of risk thresholds dropped 3.7-fold at sites with no agriculture. Precipitation increased detection probability by 43%, and concentrations were the highest from April to June.

Overall, this indicates that agricultural land use is a major contributor of pesticides in streams. RACs were exceeded in 26% of streams, with the highest exceedances found for neonicotinoid insecticides. We conclude that pesticides from agricultural land use are a major threat to small streams and their biodiversity. To reflect peak concentrations, current pesticide monitoring needs refinement.

Intensive agriculture using pesticides in fields near nature reserves and our ecosystems health

Flying insects in west German nature reserves suffer decline of more than 76% (1973–2000)

Insect numbers in west German nature reserves have fallen by more than 76% in just 27 years, according to a new study. The fall was even higher in the summer months, with 82% on average fewer insects being recorded. It is not just vulnerable species such as bees, butterflies and moths that are at risk: all flying insects have been affected. The reasons for this dramatic fall are unclear.

The researchers ruled out changes in weather, plant cover and local landscape playing a significant role in the observed decline, but suggest that intensive agriculture and pesticides in fields near to the reserves could be responsible.

Science for Environment Policy explains, 19 July 2018.

Whatever the cause, the catastrophic fall in insect numbers will inevitably lead to knock-on effects on ecosystems in the long term, particularly due to their essential role as pollinators and their position in the food web. The researchers say that preserving and protecting insects should now be a priority for conservation policies.

Study Abstract

Global declines in insects have sparked wide interest among scientists, politicians, and the general public. Loss of insect diversity and abundance is expected to provoke cascading effects on food webs and to jeopardize ecosystem services. Our understanding of the extent and underlying causes of this decline is based on the abundance of single species or taxonomic groups only, rather than changes in insect biomass which is more relevant for ecological functioning. Here, we used a standardized protocol to measure total insect biomass using Malaise traps, deployed over 27 years in 63 nature protection areas in Germany (96 unique location-year combinations) to infer on the status and trend of local entomofauna. Our analysis estimates a seasonal decline of 76%, and mid-summer decline of 82% in flying insect biomass over the 27 years of study. We show that this decline is apparent regardless of habitat type, while changes in weather, land use, and habitat characteristics cannot explain this overall decline. This yet unrecognized loss of insect biomass must be taken into account in evaluating declines in abundance of species depending on insects as a food source, and ecosystem functioning in the European landscape.

Fracking, gas drilling, and risks of (further) earthquakes

Induced Earthquakes from Long-Term Gas Extraction in Groningen, the Netherlands : Statistical Analysis and Prognosis for Acceptable-Risk Regulation

A recent overview and analysis shows that increasing amounts of gas drilling at Groningen, the largest gas field in Europe, led to a dramatic rise in regional earthquakes between 2001 and 2013. After a reduction in extraction was introduced by the Dutch Government, earthquake numbers started to fall. Statistical analysis reveals that if high extraction rates were resumed, about 35 earthquakes, with a magnitude (M) of over 1.5 on the Richter scale, might occur annually from the year 2021 onwards, including four with a damaging magnitude of over 2.5.

“Even if extraction was limited to the 2017 rate set by the government (21.6 billion cubic metres – bcm), the annual number of earthquakes would gradually increase again, with an expected all-time maximum M of 4.5, a serious event capable of shaking walls and chimneys, creating considerable damage and posing safety risks to the public.”

Science for Environment Policy explains, 19 July 2018.

2018 Study Abstract

Recently, growing earthquake activity in the northeastern Netherlands has aroused considerable concern among the 600,000 provincial inhabitants. There, at 3 km deep, the rich Groningen gas field extends over 900 km2 and still contains about 600 of the original 2,800 billion cubic meters (bcm).

Particularly after 2001, earthquakes have increased in number, magnitude (M, on the logarithmic Richter scale), and damage to numerous buildings. The man-made nature of extraction-induced earthquakes challenges static notions of risk, complicates formal risk assessment, and questions familiar conceptions of acceptable risk.

Here, a 26-year set of 294 earthquakes with M ≥ 1.5 is statistically analyzed in relation to increasing cumulative gas extraction since 1963. Extrapolations from a fast-rising trend over 2001-2013 indicate that-under “business as usual”-around 2021 some 35 earthquakes with M ≥ 1.5 might occur annually, including four with M ≥ 2.5 (ten-fold stronger), and one with M ≥ 3.5 every 2.5 years. Given this uneasy prospect, annual gas extraction has been reduced from 54 bcm in 2013 to 24 bcm in 2017. This has significantly reduced earthquake activity, so far.

However, when extraction is stabilized at 24 bcm per year for 2017-2021 (or 21.6 bcm, as judicially established in Nov. 2017), the annual number of earthquakes would gradually increase again, with an expected all-time maximum M ≈ 4.5. Further safety management may best follow distinct stages of seismic risk generation, with moderation of gas extraction and massive (but late and slow) building reinforcement as outstanding strategies.

Officially, “acceptable risk” is mainly approached by quantification of risk (e.g., of fatal building collapse) for testing against national safety standards, but actual (local) risk estimation remains problematic. Additionally important are societal cost-benefit analysis, equity considerations, and precautionary restraint. Socially and psychologically, deliberate attempts are made to improve risk communication, reduce public anxiety, and restore people’s confidence in responsible experts and policymakers.

How mercury can enter our bodies

Tackling mercury pollution in the EU and worldwide

Mercury is a heavy metal that is well known for being the only metal that is liquid at room temperature and normal pressure. It is also a potent neurotoxin with severe global human health impacts. It can be converted from one form to another by natural processes and, once released, actively cycles in the environment for hundreds to thousands of years before being buried in sediment.

  • The Tackling mercury pollution in the EU and worldwide In-Depth Report from Science for Environment Policy summarises the latest scientific studies and research results on mercury pollution in the global environment.
  • Image source European Commission multimedia.
  • Find more infographics in our Flickr album.

New perspectives for reducing pesticide use on grapevine

A critical review of plant protection tools for reducing pesticide use on grapevine and new perspectives for the implementation of IPM in viticulture

Disease-fighting microbes, insect-eating predators and mating-disrupting pheromones are among the tools listed in a new review of methods that can be used to reduce synthetic pesticide use on grapevines in Europe. Using these alternative methods can reduce the environmental and health risks associated with chemical pesticides, but further development is required to make them attractive to growers.


  • Several pests and diseases affect the grapevine.
  • Integrated pest management is mandatory to reduce pesticide risk.
  • A review on the state of the art and the perspectives on pest protection tools and strategies.


Several pests and diseases have grapevine as their favourite host and the vineyard as preferred environment, so an intensive pesticide schedule is usually required to meet qualitative and quantitative production standards. The need to prevent the negative impact of synthetic chemical pesticides on human health and the environment and the consumer expectations in term of chemical residues in food stimulated the research of innovative tools and methods for sustainable pest management. The research project PURE  was a Europe-wide framework, which demonstrated that several solutions are now available for the growers and evaluated several new alternatives that are under development or almost ready for being applied in practice. Although the use of resistant/tolerant varieties is not yet feasible in several traditional grape growing areas, at least part of the synthetic chemical pesticides can be substituted with biocontrol agents to control pests and pathogens and/or pheromone mating disruption, or the number of treatments can be reduced by the use of decision support systems, which identify the optimal timing for the applications. This review presents the state of the art and the perspectives in the field of grapevine protection tools and strategies.

More Information
  • A critical review of plant protection tools for reducing pesticide use on grapevine and new perspectives for the implementation of IPM in viticulture, sciencedirect, Volume 97, July 2017, Pages 70-84.
  • Reducing synthetic pesticide use on grapevines — a review of methods, Science for Environment Policy, 07 March 2018 Issue 504.

Antibiotic resistance genes traced from manure to soil and water on Finnish farms

Influence of Manure Application on the Environmental Resistome under Finnish Agricultural Practice with Restricted Antibiotic Use

A recent study has investigated the movement of antibiotic resistance genes between farm animals, soil and water in Finland. The results show that many of these genes are spread from animals to the soil through manure application; however, these genes do not appear to persist in soil. The study suggests that practices that minimise the use of antibiotics, as used in Finland, may lead to lower levels of clinically relevant resistance genes in agricultural soils.

2017 Study Abstract

The co-occurrence of antibiotic-resistance genes (ARGs) and mobile genetic elements (MGEs) in farm environments can potentially foster the development of antibiotic-resistant pathogens. We studied the resistome of Finnish dairy and swine farms where use of antibiotics is limited to treating bacterial infections and manure is only applied from April to September. The resistome of manure, soil, and tile drainage water from the ditch was investigated from the beginning of the growing season until forage harvest. The relative ARG and MGE abundance was measured using a qPCR array with 363 primer pairs. Manure samples had the highest abundance of ARGs and MGEs, which increased during storage. Immediately following land application, the ARGs abundant in manure were detected in soil, but their abundance decreased over time with many becoming undetectable. This suggests that increases in ARG abundances after fertilizing are temporary and occur annually under agricultural practices that restrict antibiotic use. A few of the ARGs were detected in the ditch water, but most of them were undetected in the manure. Our results document the dissipation and dissemination off farm of ARGs under Finnish limited antibiotic use and suggest that such practices could help reduce the load of antibiotic-resistance genes in the environment.


  • Antibiotic resistance genes traced from manure to soil and water on Finnish farms,, 08 February 2018.
  • Influence of Manure Application on the Environmental Resistome under Finnish Agricultural Practice with Restricted Antibiotic Use, Environmental Science & Technology, April 28, 2017.

Environmental impact of nanosilver in products

Life Cycle Assessment and Release Studies for 15 Nanosilver-Enabled Consumer Products: Investigating Hotspots and Patterns of Contribution

A 2017 study has analysed the environmental impact of 15 products containing nanosilver, highlighting the contribution of this novel material to the items’ overall environmental burden.


Increasing use of silver nanoparticles (AgNPs) in consumer products as antimicrobial agents has prompted extensive research toward the evaluation of their potential release to the environment and subsequent ecotoxicity to aquatic organisms. It has also been shown that AgNPs can pose significant burdens to the environment from life cycle emissions associated with their production, but these impacts must be considered in the context of actual products that contain nanosilver. Here, a cradle-to-gate life cycle assessment for the production of 15 different AgNP-enabled consumer products was performed, coupled with release studies of those same products, thus providing a consistent analytical platform for investigation of potential nanosilver impacts across a range of product types and concentrations. Environmental burdens were assessed over multiple impact categories defined by the United States Environmental Protection Agency’s Tool for the Reduction and Assessment of Chemical and Other Environmental Impacts (TRACI 2.1) method. Depending on the product composition and silver loading, the contribution of AgNP synthesis to the overall impacts was seen to vary over a wide range from 1% to 99%. Release studies found that solid polymeric samples lost more silver during wash compared to fibrous materials. Estimates of direct ecotoxicity impacts of AgNP releases from those products with the highest leaching rates resulted in lower impact levels compared to cradle-to-gate ecotoxicity from production for those products. Considering both cradle-to-gate production impacts and nanoparticle release studies, in conjunction with estimates of life cycle environmental and health benefits of nanoparticle incorporation, can inform sustainable nanoenabled product design.

More Information

  • Life Cycle Assessment and Release Studies for 15 Nanosilver-Enabled Consumer Products: Investigating Hotspots and Patterns of Contribution, Environmental Science & Technology, DOI: 10.1021/acs.est.6b05923, May 24, 2017.
  • Relative environmental impact of nanosilver in products may be marginal compared with impacts of other components, Science for Environment Policy Issue 499, 20 December 2017.