Hazardous substances in Europe`s fresh and marine waters

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Courtesy of European Environment Agency (EEA)

Chemical substances are an essential part of our daily lives. They are used in health and consumer products, in food production and in a growing range of environmental technologies, to name but a few examples. They can be natural substances, they can be formed as the unintended by-product of natural and human-induced processes, or they can be synthesised specifically for use in industrial processes and consumer products (OSPAR, 2009a). Tens of thousands of chemicals are available on the European market, with the European Union holding a substantial share of global exports and imports.

Whilst chemicals bring important benefits to society, some of them are hazardous, raising concerns for human health and the environment depending on their pattern of use and environmental exposures. Annual production of hazardous chemicals (i.e. toxic chemicals as defined by Eurostat) in the European Union amounted to approximately 200 million tonnes in 2008 (Figure 1.1). Following several decades of substantial growth, it has tended to stabilise in recent years.

Hazardous substances are released to the wider environment via various pathways, with the potential for detrimental effects upon both terrestrial and aquatic ecosystems. Observations from aquatic ecosystems in the 1950s and 1960s were the first early warnings of the environmental dangers of the widespread production and use of industrial and man-made chemicals, including persistent organic pollutants (POPs). The concern that arose led to the implementation (in 1976) of the Dangerous Substances Directive (now integrated into the WFD) which aimed to eliminate pollution by a select list of substances and reduce the level of certain others. This directive, coupled with other international initiatives, led to the decline of certain substances, including some metals and POPs, in aquatic environments (EEA, 2003).

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