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Environment and Water: proposal to reduce water pollution risks

Improvements in water quality in the EU could be at risk from new forms of chemical pollution. The Commission is proposing to add 15 chemicals to the list of 33 pollutants that are monitored and controlled in EU surface waters. This is another step towards improving the quality of our river, lake and coastal waters. The 15 substances include industrial chemicals as well as substances used in biocides, pharmaceuticals and plant protection products. They have been selected on the basis of scientific evidence that they may pose a significant risk to health.

Environment Commissioner Janez Potočnik said: "Water pollution is one of the environmental worries most frequently cited by EU citizens. I welcome this advance as it is clearly answering people's expectations. These 15 additional chemicals need to be monitored and controlled to ensure they don't pose a risk to the environment or human health."

The update will be achieved through a revision of the Directive on priority substances in the field of water quality. The newly proposed substances are the outcome of a review that considered the risks posed by some 2000 substances according to their levels in surface waters, and their hazardousness, production and use. For six of the 15 new priority substances the classification proposed would require their emissions to water to be phased out within 20 years. The proposal also includes stricter standards for four currently controlled substances, and a requirement to phase out the emissions of two others already on the list.

The proposed 15 additional priority substances are:

  • Plant protection product substances: Aclonifen, Bifenox, Cypermethrin, Dicofol, Heptachlor, Quinoxyfen

  • Substances used in biocidal products: Cybutryne, Dichlorvos, Terbutryn

  • Industrial chemicals: Perfluorooctane sulfonic acid (PFOS), Hexabromocyclododecane (HBCDD)

  • Combustion by-products: Dioxin and Dioxin-Like PCBs

  • Pharmaceutical substances: 17 alpha-ethinylestradiol (EE2), 17 beta-estradiol (E2), Diclofenac

Pharmaceuticals are proposed for the first time. The proposal does not put into question the medicinal value of these substances, but addresses the potential harmful effects of their presence in the aquatic environment. Concentrations above the proposed standards can affect fish health, reducing successful reproduction, for example, and harming other living organisms. Our awareness of the impact of pharmaceuticals in the environment has grown considerably in recent years, and the proposal is based on the latest scientific knowledge.

The Commission also proposes improvements to the monitoring and reporting of chemical pollutants in water, as well as a mechanism to obtain better information on the concentrations of other pollutants that might need to be controlled in the future at EU level. The Commission proposal is accompanied by a report to the European Parliament and Council on the outcome of the review of the existing list of controlled substances.

Next Steps

The Commission is proposing the revised list as part of a Directive amending the Water Framework Directive (WFD) and Environmental Quality Standards Directive (EQSD). The proposal will pass to the Council and the Parliament for discussion and adoption.

As a rule, Member States must meet environmental quality standards for new Priority Substances by 2021 (the deadline of the 2nd River Basin Management Plan). Longer timelines are possible in specific cases if the conditions for exemptions set out in the WFD are applicable.


The main aim of EU water policy is to ensure that throughout the EU a sufficient quantity of good quality water is available and used more efficiently for the needs of people and businesses, as well as for the protection of the environment. In 2000 the Water Framework Directive (WFD) established a legal basis to protect and restore clean water across Europe and ensure its long-term, sustainable use. The general objective of the WFD is to get all water – for example, lakes, rivers, streams and groundwater aquifers – into a healthy state by 2015.

Article 16 of the WFD sets out "Strategies against pollution of water" outlining the steps to be taken. The first step was the establishment of a first list of priority substances in 2001, which became Annex X of the WFD.

The review of the list as required by the WFD and EQSD has taken more than three years because of the extensive technical analysis involved in identifying possible new Priority Substances and setting environmental quality standards (EQS) for them.

Of the additional 15 substances, the following are proposed as Priority Hazardous Substances: Dicofol, Quinoxyfen, PFOS, Heptachlor, HBCDD, Dioxin and Dioxin-Like PCBs. The substances already on the list but which would be subject to stricter standards are: Brominated diphenylethers, Fluoranthene, Nickel, Polyaromatic Hydrocarbons (PAHs). The two existing substances which would become Priority Hazardous Substances are Diethylhexylphthalate and Trifluralin.

Further information:

Proposal for a revised directive of the European Parliament and of the Council on priority substances in the field of water quality:

See also MEMO/12/59

See also:

Chemicals in water (Europa site)

List of current priority substances:

Current Directive on Priority Substances (Directive 2008/105/EC)

Contacts :

Joe Hennon (+32 2 295 35 93)

Monica Westeren (+32 2 299 18 30)