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Archive:Agri-environmental indicator - pesticide pollution of water

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This article provides a fact sheet of the European Union (EU) agri-environmental indicator water quality - pesticide pollution. It consists of an overview of recent data, complemented by all information on definitions, measurement methods and context needed to interpret them correctly. The water quality - pesticide pollution article is part of a set of similar fact sheets providing a complete picture of the state of the agri-environmental indicators in the EU. This indicator is still in the process of development.

Figure 1: Occurrence and exceedance of Environmental Quality Standards (EQS) of individual pesticides in groundwater monitoring stations, (%), 2010-2011, (1)
Source: European Environment Agency, WISE-SoE Groundwater
Map 2: Occurrence and exceedance of selected pesticides (listed in Figure 1) in groundwater monitoring stations, 2010-2011
Source: European Environment Agency, WISE-SoE Groundwater
Figure 2: Maximum concentrations of individual pesticides in groundwater monitoring stations, (μg/l), 2010-2011, (1)
Source: European Environment Agency, WISE-SoE Groundwater
Figure 3: Percentage of river monitoring stations where the Environmental Quality Standard (EQS) (as annual average) for various pesticides is exceeded (%), 2009, (1)
Source: European Environment Agency, WISE-SoE Rivers
Figure 4: Average annual concentrations of Atrazine in some European rivers, (µg/l), 2006-2009, BE, FR, LT and UK
Source: European Environment Agency, WISE-SoE Rivers
Map 2: Environmental Quality Standards (EQS) status for selected pesticides in rivers, 2009

Pesticides in water are indicated by current values, exceedances and trends in the concentrations (µg/l) of selected pesticides in groundwater and rivers.

Main indicators:

Main statistical findings

Key messages

  • Several countries in Europe report that groundwater has concentrations of pesticides that exceed the quality standards. Across this European dataset, about 7 % of the groundwater stations reported excessive levels for one or more pesticides. Atrazine and its metabolite Desethylatrazine are the pesticides most frequently detected above the quality standard throughout Europe. Groundwater at risk appears to be located in areas used intensively for agriculture.
  • At all river monitoring stations the average annual concentrations of Alachlor and Atrazine were below EQS. For the rest of the pesticides monitored, except the Cyclodiene-group and Endosulfan, the EQS was exceeded at less than 5 % of the river monitoring stations. The EQS for the Cyclodiene-group was exceeded in 43 % of the measured rivers. The Endosulfan EQS was exceeded in 35 % of the river monitoring stations.
  • Agriculture is considered as the greatest contributor to pesticides in European surface and groundwater. Even though groundwater and surface water are used as a drinking water resource, there is limited information available on pesticide contamination, and a lack of reliable and comparable data. Monitoring of pesticides is a challenging task because of the high number of registered pesticides, cost of analyses, and the need for sampling to be performed during periods of application and use, and under various weather conditions. Extensive data sets of high quality are consequently often missing. The data used for this indicator were limited, both in time and space, and the need for harmonisation is apparent. This indicator is still a subject for development.


Pesticides in groundwater

Elevated concentrations of selected pesticides above the EQS (0.1 μg/l, except for the selected cyclodiene pesticides (Aldrin, Dieldrin) with EQS of 0.03 μg/l) occurred at approximately 7 % (517 stations) of the 7 669 monitoring stations reported for the 2010-2011 period (Figure 1 and Map1). At 60 % (4 596) of the stations none of the assessed pesticides had concentrations above the limit of quantification. At least one of the assessed pesticides was found, but not at concentrations above the EQS at 33 % (2 556) of the stations. Occurrence and exceedance of the quality standard by at least one of the assessed pesticides in the monitoring station is indicated by yellow and red colours respectively in Map 1. Concentrations exceeding the regulatory level are generally detected in groundwater underlying areas of intensive agriculture. Atrazine, its metabolite Desethylatrazine and also Simazine are the pesticides most frequently detected above the regulatory value throughout Europe. In this factsheet, data for 2,4-D, Alachlor[1], Aldrin[2], Alpha-Endosulfan[3], Alpha-HCH, Atrazine[4], Bentazone, Beta-HCH, Chlorfenvinphos[5], Chlorpyrifos, DDD p,p', DDE p,p', DDT o,p', DDT p,p'[6], Desethylatrazine, Desisopropylatrazine, Dieldrin[7], Diuron, Endrin[8], Gamma-HCH[9], Isodrin[10], Isoproturon, Linuron, MCPA, Mecoprop, Prometryn, Propazine, Simazine[11], Terbuthylazine, Terbutryn and Trifluralin[12] were reported. Maximum concentrations of these individual pesticides detected in groundwater monitoring stations in 2010-2011 are shown in Figure 2.

Pesticides in rivers

Average annual concentrations of Alachlor and Atrazine were below the EQS at all stations in 2009 (Figure 3). Trend analyses of Atrazine showed that the annual average concentrations have been below EQS in several countries since 2006, even in countries like France and Belgium known for intensive agricultural production (Figure 4). For the rest of the pesticides monitored, except the Cyclodiene-group and Endosulfan, EQS were exceeded at less than 5 % of the stations (Figure 3). The EQS for the Cyclodiene-group measured as the sum of Aldrin, Dieldrin, Endrin, and Isodrine was exceeded at 43 % of the river monitoring stations. The EQS for Endosulfan was exceeded in 35 % of monitored rivers. Map 2 shows the exceedance of Chlorfenvinphos, Chlorpyrifos, Cyclodiene, Diuron, Isoproturon and Trifluralin in some countries in 2009. No countries had observations of exceedance for all these six pesticides monitored.

Data sources and availability

Indicator definition

Pesticides in water are indicated by current values, exceedances and trends in the concentrations (µg/l) of selected pesticides in rivers and groundwater.


Main indicators:

  • Groundwater with pesticide concentrations above Environmental Quality Standards (EQS).
  • Rivers with annual average pesticide concentrations above Environmental Quality Standards (EQS).

Links with other indicators

The indicator water quality - pesticide pollution is linked with following other indicators:

Data used and methodology

All analyses are based on individual measurements for single groundwater stations or annual average concentrations for single river monitoring stations. Occurrence in groundwater is indicated by at least one measurement above the limit of quantification and exceedance of Environmental Quality Standard (EQS). The data are drawn from the WISE-SoE Groundwater database and WISE-SoE Rivers database. All data are analysed by the European Topic Centre on Inland, Costal and Marine Waters (ETC/ICM). For the time series analysis (Figure 4), only river monitoring stations with data for all years have been included. Starting earlier than 2006 would give too few stations with this criterion. The number of river monitoring stations for the analysis of the situation as of 2009 ranges from 1 346 to 1 617 for the different pesticides presented in Figure 3, with the exception of Endosulfan (measured at 243 stations only).

Since the monitoring of pesticide type and sampling frequencies was not harmonised, it is difficult to compare between countries. Few countries provided yearly measurements before 2006. Four years measurements of selected pesticides showed generally values below the EQS. It should be noted that whilst the respective EQS’s arising from the Directive on Environmental Quality Standards have been used in this assessment, the data analysed does not arise from Water Framework Directive reporting but the European Environment Agency's WISE-SoE reporting.


Pesticides are used to control pests, weeds and diseases in agriculture, and their use plays an essential role in maintaining or enhancing crop yields. Pesticides are rigorously risk assessed before being approved for marketing. However, their use, particularly if it doesn’t follow relevant guidance, can lead to harmful effects upon non-target organisms in the wider environment, including aquatic ecosystems. Risks to human health can also arise. Several pesticides are persistent (slowly degraded), bioaccumulated (concentration increases in biota), bioconcentrated (concentration in biota increases through the food chain), and mobile in the environment (high water solubility and low absorption to soil). In addition to acute and chronic toxic effects on non-target biota, a large range of pesticides has been shown to possess potentially endocrine-disrupting properties, as well as causing impairment of the nervous system and cancer.

Pesticides used in agriculture are transported by diffuse pathways to surface and groundwater. Point discharges are also important, however, and occur through accidental spillage, sprayer loading and wash-down and inappropriate storage and disposal. The contamination of surface and groundwater by pesticides impairs the quality and restricts use as drinking water. In aquatic ecosystems elevated concentrations of pesticides may result in a reduction in population density and loss of biodiversity. Today several European water bodies are at risk from diffuse pollution by pesticides.

This factsheet describes pesticide concentrations in rivers and groundwater across Europe, including current levels and trends from 2006. Assessment of current concentrations is made against legislative criteria – the EQS values for surface waters given in the Directive on Environmental Quality Standards (2008/105/EC) and for groundwater quality standards according to the Groundwater Directive (2006/118/EC) of 0.1µg/l for individual pesticides, with an exception for Aldrin and Dieldrin, where the respective drinking water standard of 0.03 µg/l pursuant to the directive on the quality of water intended for human consumption (the Drinking Water Directive (98/83/EC)) were used.

Policy relevance and context

Pesticides in surface water and groundwater are addressed by several directives, such as the Pesticides Framework Directive (Directive 2009/128/EC), Environmental Quality Standards Directive (Directive 2008/105/EC), Drinking Water Directive (Directive 98/83/EC) and Groundwater Directive (Directive 2006/118/EC). The latter three are daughter directives of the Water Framework Directive (WFD) (2000/60/EC). Some of the most hazardous pesticides in the Environmental Quality Standards Directive are listed in the Stockholm Convention on Persistent Organic Pollutants in order to eliminate or restrict use and production.

The Pesticides Framework Directive (2009/128/EC) aims to reduce damage caused by pesticides, and the focus is on plant protection products. Instructions to adapt national action plans, develop obligatory systems for training and education, set up a framework for equipment inspections, examine alternative pest management methods, secure water protection, and apply harmonised risk indicators are fundamental.

Pesticide levels in water intended for human consumption are addressed in the Drinking Water Directive (98/83/EC) and the Groundwater Directive (2006/118/EC). In both directives, concentrations of pesticides in drinking water may not exceed 0.1 µg/l for a single pesticide and 0.5 µg/l for total pesticides. In addition the Drinking Water Directive specifies that the threshold for Aldrin and Dieldrin should be 0.03 μg/l. Minimum obligatory frequencies on sampling and analyses are specified.

The list of substances in the Environmental Quality Standards Directive (2008/105/EC) includes several pesticides. EQS for the individual substances, monitoring and sampling frequencies, and matrices are described. Pesticides included in this directive are to a large extent banned and not used in Europe. Despite this, monitoring and surveillance is still needed.

Other EU measures to control pesticides in the environment are established. The Thematic Strategy on the Sustainable Use of Pesticides (COM/2006/0372 final) includes a number of measures to encourage the sustainable use of pesticides that were later transformed into Directive 2009/128/EC establishing a framework for Community action to achieve the sustainable use of pesticides and Regulation (EC) No 1107/2009 concerning the placing of plant protection products on the market and repealing Council Directives 79/117/EEC and 91/414/EEC. This Strategy is one of the seven thematic strategies outlined in the Sixth Environment Action Programme adopted in 2002.

Agri-environmental context

Research into pesticides has concentrated on the contamination of waters, impact on aquatic and terrestrial flora and fauna and impact on human health[13]. Direct and indirect negative effects of pesticide use on biodiversity have been shown by different studies[14] [15] [16]. Akerblom (2004)[17] provides a useful literature review of agricultural pesticide toxicity to aquatic organisms. This covers the mechanism of pesticide action and pesticide toxicity in aquatic micro-organisms, invertebrates and fish. The effects of pesticide run-off and leaching to water bodies can be quite severe, including even suspected fish mass deaths (massive eel devastation in Lake Balaton in 1995). Overall, however, further knowledge needs to be gained of pesticide effects on the aquatic environment, in particular in mixture with other pesticides or chemicals.

Contamination of the environment with pesticides may result from spray drift, volatilisation, surface run-off, and subsurface loss via leaching/drainflow. Pesticide fate (and hence environmental risk) is primarily governed by vapour pressure, sorption characteristics, solubility in water, and environmental persistence[18]. Vapour pressure governs the tendency for pesticides to volatilise and be lost to the atmosphere in gaseous form, while sorption properties govern bonding to organic and inorganic soil surfaces. Sorption properties limit the mobility of pesticides in the environment, and are influenced by factors including soil organic matter, clay content, and soil pH. Pesticides with greater water solubility often have lower sorption behaviour, which makes them more mobile in the environment and hence more prone to leaching to water bodies. The persistence of pesticides in the environment differs greatly and is dependent on factors such as their susceptibility to attack by micro-organisms and enzymes, soil temperature and water content.

See also

Further information


Dedicated section

Source data for tables, figures and maps (MS Excel)

Other information

Legislation: Commission Staff working document accompanying COM(2006)508 final
Corresponding IRENA Fact sheet 30.2

External links

  • Database:
  • Other external links:
  • European Commission
  • DG Agriculture and Rural Development
  • DG Environment
  • DG Health and Food Safety


  1. Authorisation withdrawn by 10.5. 2007, period of grace ended on 31.12. 2007.
  2. Forbidden since 19.5 2004.
  3. Authorisation withdrawn by 2.6. 2006, period of grace ended on 31.12. 2007.
  4. Authorisation withdrawn by 18.6. 2007, period of grace ended on 18.6. 2008.
  5. Chlorfenvinphos not authorised since 25.7.2003, period of grace ended on 31.12. 2007.
  6. DDT not authorised since 1.1.1981.
  7. Forbidden since 19.5 2004.
  8. Forbidden since 19.5 2004.
  9. Authorisation withdrawn by 20.6. 2001, period of grace ended on 20.6. 2002. Some use of HCH allowed until 31.12.2007, but not in agriculture.
  10. Forbidden since 19.5 2004.
  11. Authorisation withdrawn by 10.9. 2004, period of grace ended on 31.12. 2007.
  12. Trifluralin not authorised since 20.3.2008, period of grace ended on 20.3. 2009.
  13. Skinner, J. A., Lewis, K. A., Bardon, K. S., Tucker, P., Catt, J. A. and Chambers B. J. (1997). ‘An overview of the environmental impact of agriculture in the UK’. Journal of Environmental Management 50, pp. 111–128.
  14. Campbell, L.H. and Cooke, A.S (1997). The indirect effects of pesticides on birds. Joint Nature Conservation Committee, Peterborough.
  15. Young J. E. B., Griffin M. J, Alford D. V. and Ogilvy S. E. (2001). ‘Reducing agrochemical use on the arable farm’, The Talisman and Scarab projects (eds). DEFRA: London.
  16. Marrs, R. H., Frost, A. J. and Plant, R. A. 1991. ‘Effects of herbicide spray drift on selected species of nature conservation interest: the effects of plant age and surrounding vegetation structure’. Environmental Pollution 69, pp. 223–225.
  17. Akerblom, Nina (2004). Agricultural pesticide toxicity to aquatic organisms – a literature review. Rapport 2004:16; Department of Environmental Assessment, Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences, Uppsala.
  18. Binks, R., Fowbert, J. and Parker, W. R. (2002). A review of the environmental impact of global horticultural systems. Report to DEFRA Chief Scientists Group, London.