Questions to micropollutants from industry and commerce

Micropollutants from various sources pollute water bodies. They come from agriculture, settlements, industry and commerce. Various measures help to reduce inputs to water bodies. However, there is no nationwide overview of inputs from industry and commerce because the focus is on substances and parameters with numerical requirements. These include metals, for example. For this reason, the Federal Council called for the state of knowledge to be improved and corresponding measures to be examined in a June 2017 report entitled “Measures at the source of the reduction of micropollutants in water bodies”. The report is available in German or French.

A Switzerland-wide situation analysis (Wunderlin, 2022 in German or French) has compiled the existing knowledge on substance discharges from industry and commerce. Companies with known substance discharges often come from the chemical-pharmaceutical industry. Micropollutants are specifically measured at some of these companies. In contrast, other wastewater-relevant sectors in Switzerland do not systematically monitor substance discharges. According to expert assessments, the following sectors and processes should be prioritized for further clarification:

  • Physico-chemical treatment of liquid hazardous waste
  • Chemical-pharmaceutical industry (synthesizing and processing plants)
  • Metal surface treatment/galvanization
  • Food production and processing
  • Laundries
  • Painting industry
  • Car/transportation industry
  • Heating and cooling processes used across industries.

A large number of possible substances from industrial and commercial enterprises can enter water bodies. These are, for example, source materials, intermediates, by-products and transformation products, active substances or solvents. Over 100,000 substances are in circulation today. Of these, the European Chemicals Agency (ECHA) registered about 26,000 in its database. Some of these substances end up in the water with the treated wastewater. Individual examples show this. In most cases, the concentrations of these substances in water are low (in the μg/L or ng/L range). Nevertheless, there are substances among them that can harm aquatic life. The simultaneous discharge of different substances can also lead to so-called mixed toxicities. Substances that are readily accessible to water and those that are difficult to break down can end up in drinking water. However, a nationwide assessment of the risk of substance discharges from industry and commercial enterprises is not possible based on the current data situation.

In the coming years, the VSA will build up more knowledge on substance inputs from industry and commerce into water bodies. In doing so, it is working closely with the authorities, industry and research. The thematic direction for the coming years is as follows:

1) Develop more knowledge on water-relevant substances from the prioritized sectors. The industrial sectors, research and enforcement will cooperate closely for that.

2) Develop tools that support authorities and companies in identifying and prioritizing the relevant substances and deriving requirements from them.

3) Pass on this knowledge to practitioners in the form of guidance documents, leaflets, conferences and training courses.

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