Investigation of the implications for Ireland of emerging standards on pharmaceuticals in receiving waters

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Resource or Project Abstract

Water is essential for all human activities. Drinking and food preparation, support of the natural environment and a growing economy all require a healthy and secure water supply. Unfortunately there are significant pressures on this fragile resource. Pollution with hazardous chemicals threatens the health and sustainability of Irish waters and places a risk on human health and well-being through the contamination of surface and drinking waters. In this report, the results from a one year desk study aiming to investigate pollution of Irish waters with three potentially hazardous pharmaceutical compounds, diclofenac (an anti-inflammatory drug), 17-beta-estradiol and 17-alpha-ethynylestradiol (respectively a natural and synthetic estrogenic hormone), are presented.

Identifying Pressures
In Ireland and Europe, there is serious concern about a class of emerging aquatic pollutants known as pharmaceutically active chemicals (PhACs). These compounds enter waterways via human use of medications, followed by excretion and incomplete removal at municipal wastewater treatment plants (WWTPs). The impacts of trace concentrations of biologically active PhACs on wildlife and human health may be severe. In humans, chronic exposure to PhACs may be linked to health conditions such as breast and testicular cancer, declining male fertility and birth defects; consequences for wild life include renal failure, reproductive disorders and population declines. Studies in an Irish context are required to understand this issue on a national scale, and for benchmarking with other EU Member States. The establishment of the utility company ?Irish Water,? responsible for the provision of safe water and waste disposal services, has significantly changed the water industry in Ireland. This is a significant undertaking, as in Ireland over 82% of the population receive their water from public water supplies originating from 978 WWTPs, with the remainder of the population receiving water from private schemes and wells. Irish drinking water quality is generally good, however pressures like pollution, and stressors that can exacerbate those pressures (i.e. adverse weather conditions as have occurred in 2012 and 2015) severely test water treatment capacity. These stressors can particularly impact the ability of treatment facilities to remove pollutants, and can apply significant pressure on efficacy of validated control measures.

Informing Policy
The Water Framework Directive (WFD) is a significant piece of European legislation aimed at protecting and improving water quality throughout the EU. Annex X of the WFD commits EU Member States to control aquatic levels of certain chemicals identified as priority substances; these chemicals must be monitored and may not exceed specific limits, defined by the legislation as Environmental Quality Standards (EQSs). This list of substances is subject to regular reviews and revisions. Recently a ?watch list? of substances for consideration on future iterations of the priority substances list was created by Article 8b of Directive 2013/39/EU. Watch list substances must be monitored for the purpose of supporting future prioritisation exercises. In response to growing concern about the release of untreated PhACs into the aquatic environment, three compounds have been included in the first watch list: diclofenac, 17-beta-estradiol (E2), and 17-alpha-ethynylestraiol (EE2). This recent legislation was identified as a potentially significant water management issue for consideration in the second round of Irish River Basin Management Plans (due for publication in 2017). The primary aim of this project was therefore to provide a baseline study for Ireland on the implications of the addition of diclofenac, E2 and EE2 to future priority substances lists.

Developing Solutions
This research conducted a state-of-the art systematic literature review and bibliographic analysis, encompassing 3,952 relevant articles, in order to understand and summarize European and national knowledge regarding these three PhACs. Typical concentrations found in WWTP influents and effluents as well as surface, ground and drinking waters were reported. European and Irish-specific sources of contamination were identified, and issues relating to the monitoring of these compounds were discussed. While current laboratory-based analytical chemistry methods are sufficiently sensitive for the detection and quantification of diclofenac, this review found that increased sensitivity is required for E2 and EE2. In order to evaluate the mobility of these PhACs in a national context, existing Irish data were collated, and monitoring locations, frequency and concentrations were mapped. From these limited data, it appears that the majority of Irish surface waters may not exceed WFD-proposed EQS values for diclofenac, E2 and EE2, but that point sources of pollution could lead to occasional hotspots that exceed these limits. Finally, in alignment with national standards this project created the first Irish-specific, semi-quantitative risk assessment model for identifying Irish WWTPs that pose a high risk to the environment regarding these PhACs. Future developments of this model would allow benchmarking with EU risk assessment standards.

In order to mitigate against pollution of the aquatic environment with these watch list PhACs, validated control measures that can reduce or eliminate the risks posed by these compounds must be evaluated. A review of treatment options effective for removal of diclofenac, E2 and EE2 was undertaken and a toolkit was developed to aid in decision-making. A critical understanding of control measures in an Irish context, as provided by this report, is imperative if these compounds are added to future WFD priority substances lists.

Overall this report provides an understanding of the state of research on three emerging aquatic pollutants of particular legislative importance, and demonstrates the need to protect our waterways from the severe anthropogenic pressure of chemical pollutants.

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Contact Information for This Resource

Professor Neil Rowan
Athlone Institute of Technology

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Attachment Name and Download Link
Att 1    C2A291EPARR_185_Tiedeken__Pharmaceuticals_prn.pdf   (1.77 Mb)
Att 2    EPARR_185_Tiedeken__Pharmaceuticals_prn.pdf   (1.77 Mb)
Att 3    EPARR_185_Tiedeken_Pharmaceuticals_epr.pdf   (2.62 Mb)
Att 4    EPARR_185_Tiedeken_Pharmaceuticals_web.pdf   (2.85 Mb)

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Author(s)Rowan, N.
Title Of WebsiteSecure Archive For Environmental Research Data
Publication InformationInvestigation of the implications for Ireland of emerging standards on pharmaceuticals in receiving waters
Name of OrganisationEnvironmental Protection Agency Ireland
Electronic Address or URL
Unique Identifier2264c3cc-437e-11e6-ab63-005056ae0019
Date of AccessLast Updated on SAFER: 2024-07-14

An example of this citation in proper usage:

Rowan, N.   "Investigation of the implications for Ireland of emerging standards on pharmaceuticals in receiving waters". Associated datasets and digitial information objects connected to this resource are available at: Secure Archive For Environmental Research Data (SAFER) managed by Environmental Protection Agency Ireland (Last Accessed: 2024-07-14)


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SAFER-Data Display URL
Resource KeywordsWFD, Watch list, diclofenac, E2, EE2, sources, receptors, mitigation, standards, EQS
EPA/ERTDI/STRIVE Project Code2014-W-DS-18
EPA/ERTDI/STRIVE Project ThemeNot Applicable
Resource Availability: Any User Can Download Files From This Resource
Limitations on the use of this Resourceplease restrict display for 3 months for publication reasons
Number of Attached Files (Publicly and Openly Available for Download): 4
Project Start Date Monday 23rd February 2015 (23-02-2015)
Earliest Recorded Date within any attached datasets or digital objects Friday 26th June 2015 (26-06-2015)
Most Recent Recorded Date within any attached datasets or digital objects Tuesday 15th March 2016 (15-03-2016)
Published on SAFERWednesday 6th July 2016 (06-07-2016)
Date of Last EditTuesday 25th July 2017 at 12:23:31 (25-07-2017)
Datasets or Files Updated On Tuesday 25th July 2017 at 12:23:31 (25-07-2017)

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A Pharmaceutically active chemicals (PhACs) include the active ingredients in pharmaceuticals and their metabolites/transformation products. These pollutants most commonly enter waterways via human use of medications, followed by excretion and incomplete removal at municipal wastewater treatment plants (WWTPs). There is increasing concern about the continuous release of PhACs into the aquatic environment. The Water Framework Directive (WFD) - the main piece of European legislation for protecting and improving water quality -has thus put forward new legislation. In accordance with Article 8b of Directive 2013/39/EU, diclofenac (an anti-inflammatory drug, DCL), 17-beta-estradiol (E2) and 17-alpha-ethynylestradiol (EE2) (natural and synthetic estrogenic hormones) have been added to a so called ?watch list.? These three PhACs will receive Union-wide monitoring, which will determine whether or not they are added to the priority substances listed by the WFD. The present study investigated the implications for Europe of the addition of these three PhACs to the priority substances list.
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