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Main provisions on surface water chemical pollution


Several pieces of European Union legislation contain provisions aimed at protecting surface waters from chemical pollution. The provisions in the Water Framework Directive 2000/60/EC (WFD) are pivotal.

The WFD covers surface water pollutants in two ways – by identifying and regulating those of greatest concern across the European Union (EU) (the priority substances – listed in Annex X to the WFD) and by requiring Member States to identify substances of national or local concern (river basin specific pollutants – included by Member States in their River Basin Management Plans) .

Measures must be taken to reduce the emissions, discharges and losses of the priority substances and to phase out those of the most harmful (the priority hazardous substances). Member States must ensure that the Environmental Quality Standards (EQS) for the priority substances, set in the Environmental Quality Standards Directive, are met in order to achieve good chemical status in accordance with WFD Article 4 and Annex V point 1.4.3. They must set and meet EQS for the river basin specific pollutants as a component of ecological status.

The list of priority substances has to be reviewed every six years. In order to improve the information available to identify the substances of greatest concern, a Watch List mechanism was established in 2013. This requires Member States to monitor substances of potential concern for up to four years to determine whether there is a risk.

The work on the priority substances list and watch list, and the implementation of the WFD as regards chemicals in surface waters, is supported by the Common Implementation Strategy Working Group Chemicals.

In order to improve the quality of the monitoring data obtained under the WFD, the Commission adopted Directive 2009/90/EC, the so-called “quality assurance, quality control” Directive.

The regulation of chemical pollutants in water began with Directive 76/464/EEC, since repealed.

Priority Substances legislation

Directive 2008/105/EC (the Environmental Quality Standards Directive – EQSD – also known as the Priority Substances Directive) sets the quality standards as required by Article 16(8) of the WFD. The EQSD was used in 2008 to amend the list of priority substances in Annex X to the WFD, and the list and EQS were amended again by Directive 2013/39/EU.

Details and documentation are available here.

Surface Water Watch List

Directive 2013/39/EU introduced a mechanism to obtain monitoring data to inform the Commission’s reviews of the priority substances list, i.e. to make it easier to assess the risk from chemicals found in surface waters. Such data on substances that are not already regulated in surface waters, in particular on emerging pollutants, are often scarce. The watch list was established in 2015; it was updated in 2018, and again in 2020. Member States have to monitor the substances on the list at least once per year for up to four years.

The Commission’s proposal for the 2020 update was based on work undertaken by the Joint Research Centre.

The latest version of the watch list contains three substances already in the list since 2018 (the insecticide metaflumizone and the antibiotics amoxicillin and ciprofloxacin), and several substances added in 2020: the sulfonamide antibiotic sulfamethoxazole and the diaminopyrimidine antibiotic trimethoprim, the antidepressant venlafaxine and its metabolite O-desmethylvenlafaxine, a group of three azole pharmaceuticals (clotrimazole, fluconazole and miconazole) and seven azole pesticides (imazalil, ipconazole, metconazole, penconazole, prochloraz, tebuconazole, tetraconazole), and the fungicides famoxadone and dimoxystrobin.

Commission Directive 2009/90/EC on technical specifications for chemical analysis and monitoring of water status

This Directive establishes common quality rules for chemical analysis and monitoring of water, sediment and biota carried out by Member States under the WFD.

Strategic approach to pharmaceuticals in the environment

On 11 March 2019, the Commission adopted a strategic approach to pharmaceuticals in the environment (all languages available here) as required by Article 8c of Directive 2008/105/EC as amended by Directive 2013/39/EU.

More information is available here.