What are micropollutants?

Micropollutants are man-made artificial chemical bonds that can be found in least quantities in water bodies (nanogramm = 1 part in a billion gramm), and partly also in drinking water (e.g. pharmaceutical residues, toiletries, household and industrial chemicals). What compounds exactly are in the focus of recent discussions, how they affect the environment and what concentrations can be found in the influent end effluent of waste water treatment plants are crucial questions to be worked on by the noPILLS partners.

Why does the EU fund investments in the partner countries and what benefit may Europe gain from that support?

All partners work in the frame of European legislation and contribute to the water quality developments in their fields. Regarding water bodies it would be meaningless to work isolated on quality aspects. The previous experiences from the pills project were showing that the exchange of findings and jointly elaborated solutions were leading to a more serious data base, regionally to improvements and in public and science to a higher reputation.

In the previous PILLS project the EU funded via Interreg IV B already the investigations regarding the point source approach. Therefore the changed focus now – from point source treatment to a sub catchment approach regarding consumers behaviour and technical measures – is a promising next step to be approached within a partnership.

Which interaction are there between EU legislation and the regions?

If the already mentioned new Water Framework Directive annex is passing the Council and Parliament, all member states have to meet the thresholds for the priority substances by 2021. The noPILLS partners guess that the number of priority substances in the next WFD annexes will rise in future, so the efforts made for the elimination of first substances will determine the strategies for following substances, too.

This probably means enormous technical investments to extend (municipal) waste water treatment plants if we do not find other approaches to reduce micropollutants! The noPILLS partners are convinced that they may at least feed into the public European debate on how much benefit is possible by avoiding or substituting some components.

Finally it is one option to enlighten the public what consumers behaviour and a certain level of health and welfare mean for the development of waste water treatment costs and biodiversity.

What is investigated in noPILLS that may probably be claimed for waste water treatment plants in future?

At the German partner Lippeverband the funded investment contains the construction of a so called 4th treatment step (after the tertiary treatment) at the waste water treatment plant (= wwtp) in the 50.000 inhabitants town of Dülmen with activated carbon. This is in no way a legislative demand but a completely voluntary initiative of the Lippeverband (LV), a non-profit water board under public law.

The LV already runs about 50 treatment plants, where 2 treatment plants were already upgraded (voluntarily!) with advanced techniques: membrane technology at the wwtp Hünxe and ozonation at the wwtp Bad Sassendorf. These facilities were upgraded for research in parallel to the PILLS project, how cognitions from the hospital treatment plants match with results in centralized facilities and how the cost-benefit relation can be estimated.

Activated carbon is normally not used in wwtps but mainly in drinking water purification. Especially the Dutch colleagues within the previous PILLS partnership, Waterschap Groot Salland, were convinced in context with the PILLS project that activated carbon is the suitable solution for this kind of micropollutant elimination as stated in the PILLS trailer www.youtube.com/watch?v=zYZ7kaX4LEw&feature=youtu.be.

Therefore it is now in the focus to find out if this way of treatment is feasible under day-to-day conditions at a wwtp. Unfortunately the Dutch partner stepped out of the Interreg partnership, so the German partner will continue with the research on the PILLS findings in noPILLS.

The investment on the wwtp Dülmen is needed on the one hand to check the success of the communication & education campaign (input 2013 compared to 2015 after the campaign) and to answer the question if the outcomes of the Dutch PILLS partners´ cognition (that activated carbon maybe the best solution for point sources) can be transferred onto municipal wwtps, too.

How much is already known about the number of pharmaceutical residues in waste water?

As stated before: in Europe today about 3.000 pharmaceutical substances have permissions but only about 180 can be detected in waste water. That means there is a huge amount of substances or unknown metabolites that – often for technical reasons – cannot be proved technically but have to be considered in future. Partly this was topic in the www.pills-project.eu

An investment that is carried out in Scotland at Glasgow Caledonian University is needed to investigate further micropollutants in waste water.

The results of ecotoxicity tests that were carried out in the PILLS project showed that we need to take the `not detected´ micropollutants into account! Moreover the already within PILLS started research activities with ferrate to eliminate pharmaceutical residues will be carried on and demand for additional analysis facilities.

So Glasgow Caledonian University will show by their research activities supported by this investment in which direction investigations have to be driven. If partners detect additional micropollutants in the local waste water, too, the partners with advanced treatment technologies at wwtps may examine if the adapted technologies are able to eliminate these substances, too.

If residues have been removed from waste water, what happens to the sewage sludge and as well to the disposed pharmaceuticals in waste?

For example in the Emscher & Lippe region all municipal waste (like pharmaceuticals that are thrown into the bin) and all waste water sludge is going to incineration, meaning that residues from treatment or disposal have no environmental effect afterwards (at least regarding the water path).

On the other hand the Scottish waste is not going to incineration but to waste disposal sites and 50% of the wwtp sludge is going to agriculture, too – with the risk to burden ground water (additionally to the combined sewer system). As well in France there are regions where up to 80% of the sludge goes to agriculture. The potential pharmaceutical residues have not been investigated enough but this challenge has to be considered.

So the approach of withdrawal of unused pharmaceuticals to pharmacies has a completely different meaning and economic consequences here and calls for different economic frame conditions. The more withdrawal is wanted the more infrastructure must be developed for pharmacies to be able to dispose the unused substances properly.

If we are aiming at comparable and equal living conditions and environmental standards in Europe this range shows that we need to approach various solutions to come to joint results.

Summarized we may say that the partner regions symbolize perfectly the different discharge and drainage situations over Europe and the regional or national ways to deal with waste. So developing solutions that cover all those regions will have huge credibility and knock-on effect for the political debate, aiming at the above mentioned equally good living and environmental conditions.