Researchers bring pharmaceuticals in waters challenge to Brussels

26 May 2015

Researchers working on noPILLS

Researchers working on noPILLS

Researchers, politicians and stakeholders from across Europe are gathering in Brussels this week (May 27-28) to discuss the challenges and potential solutions of reducing the pharmaceutical residues which pollute water.

Glasgow Caledonian University (GCU) researchers and partners from water boards Emschergenossenschaft and Lippeverband, the Dutch National Institute for Public Health and the Environment, the Luxembourg Institute of Science and Technology and the French Université de Limoges, have been working on noPILLS, an EU-funded £7 million study to raise awareness of the presence of pharmaceutical residues in waste water and explore new methods of reducing them before they are released into rivers.

The partners will now come together to share their findings from the three-year project and present recommendations for policy and stakeholders dealing with the topic of pharmaceutical residues in the water cycle.

Since the EU Water Framework Directive (WFD) was adopted in 2000, reduction of pollution and river water quality improvement has become a major focus in the management of water resources internationally. In 2013, several pharmaceuticals were added to the watch list of emerging pollutants and may be considered as priority substances.

Improved analytical capabilities and ecotoxicological understanding has highlighted new threats to water quality, including micropollutants in the form of pharmaceutical residues and industrial chemicals. Pharmaceuticals such as ibuprofen and other medicines are not fully absorbed into the human body so some pass into the waste water stream.

Led by Professor Ole Pahl, the GCU team in Scotland has been researching whether, and how, pharmaceutical product input may be reduced by raising awareness, encouraging different consumption or prescription practices, and promoting better disposal.

Professor Pahl said: “We found that, in order to comprehensively tackle the problem of pharmaceutical residues polluting our rivers and surface waters, it is crucial to include all stakeholders and users of medicines. Treatment of wastewater in sewage works alone is not sufficient. As a society, we have to decide whether we want to keep the substances out of our rivers and whether we want to take measures to stop them getting into the wastewater – once they are in the wastewater, it is almost impossible to remove them completely.”

Phil Leeks, Principal Policy Officer at the Scottish Environment Protection Agency (SEPA), will also present Scotland’s strategic approaches to pollution of water by pharmaceutical substances.

In collaboration with SEPA, Scottish Water completed a chemical investigation programme to improve its understanding of the prevalence of these substances in the environment, how these enter the sewer system and the effectiveness of existing and experimental treatment processes in removing and reducing concentrations.

Mr Leeks said: “There are a number of different approaches to tackling pharmaceuticals in water. The Water Framework Directive has been a huge driver for improving quality standards and a number of pharmaceuticals are now on the watch list. That is where European policy is now starting to look and noPILLS has taken a great step forward in showing how complex this area is.”

GCU’s noPILLS team is also presenting its research this week at the XVth IWRA World Water Congress in Edinburgh. Posters and presentations will include findings on the removal of pharmaceuticals from wastewater by anaerobic digestion and the environmental distribution of pharmaceuticals in rivers.