Pesticides and plasticizers threaten rivers

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Pesticides, drug residues and plasticizers in high concentrations in Germany's rivers

Pesticides in Germany's rivers pollute the environment more than previously thought. An EU-funded study by the Helmholtz Center for Environmental Research (UFZ) examined the pesticide content, the pollutant content of the rivers Danube, Elbe, Scheldt and the Spanish Llobregat. The researchers found real chemical cocktails made from pharmaceutical substances, agricultural residues and chemical plasticizers. For example, the chemicals can delay reproduction and, in the worst case, even cause the death of individual animal species. The spread of food across humans is evident.

High concentrations of pollutants and pesticides
Pesticides pollute rivers more than previously thought. The chemical pollutants pose a major health risk for fish, algae and microorganisms such as crabs and worms. This is reported by scientists from the Helmholtz Center, citing a completed study in which the data from 500 chemicals in the catchment areas of the four largest rivers in Europe were evaluated. Over a third of the substances found, including numerous pesticides, are present in such high concentrations that fatal effects on river dwellers such as fish and plants can no longer be excluded. "River contamination is now a Europe-wide problem," warn the researchers. The study work clearly shows that negative effects on living beings can no longer be ruled out, as the scientists report in the journal "Science of the Total Environment".

Major health risks mean that the rivers are contaminated, particularly for crabs, mussels, insect larvae, algae and fish. Presumably, the hormonally active substances would delay reproduction. "In the worst case, the death of individual individuals is possible," writes one of the study authors. Not only animals are exposed to the great dangers. The chemical cocktails could also reach the human organism through the food chain and thus also cause health damage.

For their study, the scientists evaluated a database that had previously been created in an EU research project. This included the laboratory results of around 750,000 water analyzes of the Danube, Elbe, Scheldt and the Spanish Llobregat. When evaluating the analysis data, the environmental researchers found large amounts of pesticide residues, so-called plasticizers and numerous substances from medicinal products. Most of the pesticides came from agriculture. There they are used to protect crops such as wheat, corn or oats from diseases, pests and weeds.

Plasticizers in rivers by discharges
The plasticizers are diethylhexyl phthalate (DEHP) and bisphenol A (BPA), which come from chemical production. The researchers suspect that the substances got into the rivers through discharges from the farms. Bisphenol A was often in the focus of the critical press because the everyday substance is said to have hormonal effects. For this reason, a general ban on BPA for the manufacture of baby pacifiers has been issued. However, BPA continues to be used across the board in the production of plastics. It has been proven beyond any doubt that BPA sustainably damages human reproduction. Complications include premature birth, abortion and male and female infertility. In addition, substances from medicines were found. The researchers found the pain relievers diclofenac and ibuprofen in high concentrations.

The researchers state that 73 of the pollutant compounds are particularly important. The pesticide diazinon is very dangerous. This has not been used in Germany and Austria for a long time and is already on the prohibition index. Nevertheless, considerable concentrations of the plant protection product were found. According to the environmental researchers, residual stocks of private households or agriculture are still used to control pests.

Inadequate EU water framework directive
Many of the identified risk substances are on the EU list of the 33 most important pollutants, according to the research team. However, only these documented substances are regularly monitored by environmental authorities. In this context, the scientists called for a fundamental "revision and update of the chemicals list of the EU Water Framework Directive". The guideline provides for rivers and lakes and groundwater to be largely cleaned by 2015 from a health and ecological point of view. "We were surprised that substances that were previously classified as harmless, such as HHCB, which is used as a synthetic musk fragrance in personal care products, are found in questionable concentrations in the environment," said Werner Brack from the Helmholtz Center for Environmental Research - UFZ. (sb)

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Significant pollution of the fish

Photo: NABU / Helge May

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