Tougher EU rules would force major pharmaceutical and cosmetics companies to pay for the cost of waste treatment as part of efforts to slash levels of harmful pollutants in water.
The European Commission said on Wednesday that 92 per cent of toxic micropollutants in water came from pharmaceuticals and personal care products and new rules would require companies to pay for the upgrade of water treatment plants required for their removal.
The wastewater regulations are part of a broader hardening of existing EU directives on air and water pollution that should cut permitted levels of dangerous airborne matter such as PM2.5, particle matter produced by burning oil, diesel or wood that is 28 times smaller than the diameter of a human hair.
The idea of making polluters pay “will significantly reduce the load of micropollutants entering surface and groundwaters”, according to a draft of the legislation seen by the Financial Times. The commission has said that it should not only help pay for the cost of cleaning water but incentivise the development of toxin-free products.
Virginijus Sinkevičius, environment commissioner, said that “delivering zero pollution is not getting any easier in the geopolitical context of today” but policymakers could “not afford to be distracted”. “The consequences would be very serious and very real,” he added.
The rules would come into effect in 2024, after discussions between member states and the European parliament.
For both water and air pollutants, more stringent monitoring will be required by member states and the EU’s list of harmful substances will be expanded by 25 pollutants to include hard-to-break down manufactured chemicals known as PFAs, often found in foams or to make non-stick pans.
The new rules will also make it easier for citizens to take action against polluting companies and claim compensation for health impacts. Monitoring for viruses such as Covid-19 has also been proposed.
The European industry trade body said that pharmaceutical residues were only “a small fraction” of the micropollutants that required upgraded treatment plants. The commission was introducing a “discriminatory model” that would mean drug companies were financing the clean-up of other industries’ discharge, said Kirsty Reid, director of science policy at the European Federation of Pharmaceutical Industries and Associations.
The industry body claimed the levy could also affect the availability of some medicines such as Ibuprofen, by increasing the cost for producers. The anti-inflammatory drug is among those identified as containing micropollutants.
The commission said that manufacturers would be responsible for only about a quarter of the cost, with an estimated impact on their profit margins of up to 0.9 per cent by 2040.
The clean-up move was praised by citizens’ organisations, but Sara Johansson, senior policy officer at the European Environmental Bureau coalition, said that the commission should be doing more to ensure that harmful substances did not enter the water system in the first place.
“It is really clear that the requirements when you put a substance on the market are not taking into account where that substance goes afterwards.”
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