For the first time, the European Commission (EC) has included pharmaceutical compounds in a list of chemicals thought to pose a risk to the safety of surface water.
The EC made the announcement as it added 12 new substances to its priority list of 33 known pollutants in the latest amendment to the 2000 Water Framework Directive, which governs how river, lake and coastal waters are monitored and how emissions into them controlled across the EU.
The maximum concentration levels in water of the substances added to the priority list will be set and enforced by 2018.
The three pharmaceutical compounds are not on the priority list but have been added to a new 'watch list' of emerging aquatic pollutants. Effectively the compounds - an anti-inflammatory drug and two hormonal ingredients - have been put on probation and may be added to the priority list at a later date.
The three chemicals are diclofenac, a commonly-used generic painkiller which is suspected of killing fish, and the hormones 17 alpha-ethinylestradiol (EE2) and 17 beta-estradiol (E2), which the EC claims can disrupt the endocrine system in humans and harm fish reproduction.
Adding them to the watch list is a partial victory for the pharma industry, which had lobbied to remove the pharmaceutical ingredients from the WFD altogether, arguing that the data behind the EC's claims was not robust enough to warrant action.
The introduction of the watch list was one in a number of key concessions to which allowed a compromise deal to go through. Others included an extension of the deadline for achieving water quality targets for the new additions to the list from 2021 to 2027.
"Unfortunately, studies show that we have some way to go to achieve good environmental status for chemicals, particularly in surface waters," commented Richard Seeber, the Austrian Member of European Parliament (MEP) who ushered the amendment through the committee stages.
He hailed the addition of drugs to the list for the first time, predicting that this will be a "very interesting field in the future, because our waters are unfortunately increasingly burdened with pharmaceuticals."
The European Federation of National Associations of Water Services (EUREAU) slammed the compromise however, saying that it "has considerably weakened the initial proposal from the European Commission".
EUREAU also said there is a pressing need to tackle water pollution by chemical and pharmaceutical substances at the source and not in treatment plants for drinking water or in waste water treatment plants.
"End-of-pipe-treatment can only be a means of last resort," said the organisation, welcoming the inclusion of a new article in the WFD which will seek to develop a strategic approach to pollution of water by pharmaceutical substances "aimed at reducing their discharges, emissions, and losses to the aquatic environment".