IMPORTANT LEGAL NOTICE - The information on this site is subject to a disclaimer and a copyright notice.
When life's waste changes life itself
"The more you look at the problem of water quality, the more you realise that treatment and purification policies - which for a long time have focused on contamination by metals - have to date tackled no more than the tip of an iceberg, the real magnitude and long-term effects of which we simply do not know. We are only now beginning to discover how to measure and evaluate the potential toxicity of the organic pollutants which our industrial and domestic consumption are introducing to aquatic ecosystems."
Director of the laboratories of the environmental chemistry department at the CID-CSIC National Research Centre, located at the heart of the Barcelona University campus, Dr Damià Barceló, 44, is one of Europe's leading experts in the field of monitoring and evaluating the quality of underground, river and maritime waters.
"The warnings of the previously unsuspected dangers caused by organic contamination are quite recent," he stresses. "It was not until the first half of this decade that the experts started to express their concerns about the effects of substances collectively known as endocrine disrupters"(1). This concern is caused by the worrying signs of sexual dysfunction in living organisms and their link with the increasing appearance of new industrial, chemical and pharmaceutical products, certain organic compounds of which are entering the water cycle and upsetting hormonal systems. "The only species for which we have already built up well-founded proof is fish. A number of independent scientific studies carried out in different European rivers and on fish farms have shown with absolute certainty that the high concentration of certain products which behave like oestrogens leads to an abnormal feminization of the species present in these waters. There has been a clear fall in the number of male fish being born."
In addition to the serious risk this poses to biodioversity, the risk of similar hormonal imbalances appearing in man is taken very seriously by the scientific community. "We do not yet have significant data, but there are certain indicators. We can no longer pollute water with such toxic substances. In addition to studying the effects of these pollutants, we must also trace the sources and set up a monitoring network so that they can be rapidly detected."
A European vocation
A number of specialised laboratories throughout the EU are currently
investigating this new threat. The Community's Environment & Climate
programme has lent its support to a number of targeted research programmes
on protecting the quality of water resources. "I was a chemist originally,
and first became interested in water quality in the 1980s," continues
Damià Barceló. "I had the opportunity of spending two
years at the Free University of Amsterdam and this experience rapidly
convinced me of the work to be done at the European level.
The WWC brings together five specific projects (see box) and network participants from Austria, Germany, Greece, the Netherlands, the United Kingdom and Sweden. In addition to the many university laboratories and research centres, two industries in the chemicals sector and two manufacturers of water quality measurement and pollution warning systems are also actively involved in the projects.
A broad cluster
The projects are principally concerned with three families of organic substances - phenols, amino acid compounds, and surfactants - the origin of which may be agricultural or industrial (chemicals, petrochemicals, textiles and tanning in particular), or the discharges of factories processing urban waste water. Among these families, the group of surfactants represents an increasingly vast range of organic compounds with marked oestrogenic effects which are widely used in detergents (particularly those used in industrial cleaning) and which are found in large quantities in the water cycle.. "A series of measurements recently made in Spain, in the Bay of Cadiz, showed that contamination is not limited to fresh water but also affects the water in coastal areas."
The WWC is tackling the full range of problems. An initial priority is to understand how organic waste evolves chemically once it is diluted in water, to analyse its toxic effects, and to evaluate and draw up a model of the seriousness of the risks run. This requires detection using a system of biosensors and an advanced automatic sampling and measuring device which operates on line. Finally - and perhaps most importantly - scientists want to put an end to this contamination, with its unexpected effects, either by developing new methods of treating waste water or by eliminating the waste at its point of origin: industrial processes.
"I believe it is very significant that in Spain we have managed to involve a very large detergent production group in the WWC's activities. Industrial companies are increasingly concerned by their possible impact on the environment and their responsibilities. New chemical products are being developed all the time, yet we also realise - and this is the worrying thing - that we do not really know a great deal about the medium- to long-term risks they could pose. This is why there is a growing demand for environmental research and technologies."
The WWC is a pilot project and an example of the increased interdisciplinary approach of the key actions under the Fifth Framework Programme (1998-2002). "One of the key actions of the thematic programme Preserving the ecosystem will be concerned with water quality and its sustainable management. This is confirmation that this field of research is a priority environmental concern requiring the coordination of research at a European level."