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Brussels, 25 June 2003

A world first: European research discovers solutions to environmental impact of antibiotics

The results of three European research projects (ERAVMIS, REMPHARMAWATER and POSEIDON) covering 13 European countries and establishing the environmental impact of human and veterinary antibiotics and possible solutions, will be presented to the press for the first time on 27 June in Gryaab, Göteborg (Sweden), at Scandinavia's largest waste-water treatment plant. Antibiotics can find their way into our environment, with harmful and worrying consequences. In the last decade 12,500 tons of antibiotics per year were consumed and consumption continues to increase. These compounds are partly degraded by the body but thousands of tons of antibiotics still enter the environment each year by excretion. Recent findings confirm that antibiotics can now be found in municipal waste water and agricultural waste. If nothing is done, these antibiotics will contaminate our water resources and soils.

“Antibiotics are a essential part of modern human and veterinary medicine, contributing significantly to the improvement of our quality of life. Nevertheless, the knowledge of what happens with antibiotics after their use, once they are released into the environment, has been very limited until now,” said Research Commissioner Philippe Busquin. “Research in this field started in mid 1980s in Europe, and since then we have been leaders on this issue world-wide, discovering not only the impacts on the environment, but proposing solutions to avoid or minimise it. The results of this European research effort will improve the efficiency and safety of water supply, bringing benefits to industry and consumers and to the protection of our environment”.

Protecting aquatic environment from contamination

The residues of antibiotics, and other medicines e.g. birth control pills, painkillers, medicines used to treat cardiovascular and heart diseases, have been detected in sewage treatment plants and raw water resources in many European countries. The removal rates of individual compounds through the wastewater treatment are variable, and some standard removal techniques are not capable of eliminating all of these compounds. As a consequence of this incomplete removal, rivers and even ground waters in some countries are also contaminated.

In addition, the behaviour of veterinary antibiotics in soils and their possible effects on the environment also needs to be addressed, as, once the antibiotic is administrated to the animal, the medicine or the metabolite is released to the environment directly (animals in the field) or indirectly (spreading manure).

Three approaches to a solution: ERAVMIS, REMPHARMAWATER and POSEIDON

Until now, there has been little available information about environmental concentrations of antibiotics residues, but data of the EU research projects have confirmed that antibiotics and other pharmaceuticals are present in sewage and in natural waters. In some cases, metabolites were found also in drinking water sources (e.g. in Germany).

Furthermore, environmental microbial populations appear to change due to exposure to antibiotics. A rise of antibiotic resistance can be seen around the world, making treatment of some diseases difficult. Therefore, it is important to increase our knowledge about these compounds and their behaviour and effects on environment to find practical risk assessment measures to combat the problem.

These three EU projects are so far providing the first data at this European scale to assess the presence and effects of antibiotics in the aquatic environment and soils. On the other hand, they are proposing solutions to the problem: the removal of antibiotics from the waste water (e.g. by ozonation or by sunlight) will be explained in detail during this press briefing in Göteborg.

The ERAVMIS, REMPHARMAWATER and POSEIDON projects have studied the behaviour and impact of antibiotics in the environment, as well as the most effective techniques to eliminate these compounds, both at waste-water and drinking water treatment processes.

ERAVMIS: Addressing the behaviour and effects of veterinary antibiotics in the environment. Eravmis:

REMPHARMAWATER: About assessment and removal technologies of antibiotics in waste-waters. Rempharmawater:

POSEIDON: A “solution - world first”: antibiotics can be eliminated during the treatment process in order to prevent its release into the environment, as proved in the pilot demonstration in Braunschweig waste water treatment plant (DE). Poseidon:


ERAVMIS Environmental Risk Assessment of Veterinary Medicines in Sludge


Dr. Alistair Boxall


Cranfield University
Prof. Dr. Birthe JensenRoyal Danish School of Pharmacy -
Dr. Joop HermensUtrecht University The
Dr. Jose Tarazona Inia -
Drs.Mark MontfortsNational Institute of Public Health and Environment The

Veterinary medicines are widely used across Europe to treat farm animals. Once administered to an animal they may be adsorbed and partially metabolised before being excreted in urine and faeces. The manure can be released directly to the environment or may be collected and stored before being applied as a sludge to land.

Once released to land, the antibiotics may be washed off into surface waters or may leach to groundwater where they can impact both human and environmental health. Consequently, under EU directive 81/852/EEC, an environmental risk assessment is now required on certain veterinary medicines and guidelines have been produced for assessing risk.

However, due to a lack of background data, the current assessment approaches are very simple and have been developed to predict very 'worst case' concentrations.

Moreover, the approaches do not adequately consider the leaching of compounds to groundwater or runoff to surface waters and extrapolating the results of the assessments across member states is problematic.

Research is therefore required to identify those factors that influence the behaviour of a wide range of antibiotics in the environment in order that currently available assessment approaches can be refined or new approaches developed. The refined approaches would need to consider different usage patterns, routes of entry to the environment and cover those factors and processes that effect the fate and behaviour of antibiotics. The approach would allow regulators and industry across Europe to more accurately assess the environmental impact of veterinary medicines in sludges and slurries and could be used to identify management options for the control of existing antibiotics.

The ERAVMIS (Environmental Risk Assessment of Veterinary Medicines in Slurry) project aims to address the current limitations in our knowledge. The overall objective is to develop approaches for assessing the environmental impact of veterinary medicines (VMs) released to the environment through the spreading of manure, slurry and sludge.

The specific aims are to:

  • identify those factors and processes affecting degradability of VMs in manure, sludge, soil and water

  • identify those factors and processes affecting the transport of VMs in the environment

  • assess the effects of VMs on aquatic and terrestrial organisms

  • assess the environmental distribution of a range of VMs

  • use the information obtained in 1 to 4 to develop exposure assessment models and scenarios for use by regulators and industry across Europe

The ERAVMIS project has involves a series of desk-based, laboratory, semi-field and field studies that have been performed to assess the fate, behaviour and effects of a range of veterinary medicines (including oxytetracycline, sulfachloropyridazine and tylosin). The approaches used includes a review and selection of study compounds,

development of analytical methods, degradation studies, absorption studies, eco-toxicology and field studies . The results of all of them will be described in detail during the press briefing.

More information:

REMPHARMAWATER Ecotoxicological Assessments and Removal Technologies for Pharmaceuticals in Wastewater


Prof. R. Andreozzi


University Napoli „Federico II“ -
Prof. Luigi CampanellaUniv. Roma „La Sapienza“ -
Dr. Nicklas PaxeusGryaab -
Dr. Jeanne Garric CEMAGREF -
Prof. Gerasimos LyberatosUniversity of Patras -
Dr. Massimo BattilottiParco Scientifico e Tecnologico del Lazio Meridonale -

The purpose of the REMPHARMAWATER project is to evaluate the exposure of aquatic organisms to a particular pharmaceutical e.g. antibiotic the knowledge of both emission rates and the environmental fate of the compound in question is a prerequisite. A monitoring campaign of wastewater treatment effluents, carried out in four participating European countries, clearly demonstrated the presence of pharmaceuticals in all effluents from Sewage Treatment Plants (STP). More than 20 individual pharmaceuticals belonging to 6 therapeutic classes (antibiotics, -blockers, antiseptics, antiepileptic, antiflogistic, lipid regulators) were found, the concentration ranging from nanograms to micrograms per litre. Antibiotics were detected in all (with few exceptions) STP effluents from participating European countries. The presence of antibiotics such as ofloxacin, lomefloxacin and enoxacin found in this study was not previously reported in treated wastewater.

Based on these investigations a prediction of the time required for studied antibiotics to reduce their concentration by one half (half-life time) in aquatic environment at varying latitude and season was made. In the worst case, corresponding winter season in Northern Europe, half-life times were expected to be more than hundreds days.

An extensive research activity is in progress to evaluate the toxicity of the selected antibiotics towards aquatic living organisms such as algae, invertebrates and fish.

Future activities of “REMPHARMAWATER” project will be focussed on the possibility of using Advanced Removal Technologies (ozonation, H2O2/UV, photocatalysis, etc) as complementary processes to the conventionally activated sludge treatment, in order to remove pharmaceutical residues in sewage treatment plants. More information:

POSEIDON Assessment of Technologies for the Removal of Pharmaceuticals and Personal Care Products in Sewage and Drinking Water Facilities to Improve the Indirect Potable Water Reuse


Dr. Thomas Ternes


Bundesanstalt für Gewässerkunde (Federal Institute of Hydrology), Germany
Dr. Hansruedi SigristEAWAG -
Prof. Tuula TuhkanenTampere University -
Dr. Norbert Kreuzinger Vienna University -
Prof. Juan M. LemaUniversity of Santiago de Compostela -
Prof. Korneliusz MikschSilesian University Technology

Gliwice Poland
Dr. Thomas KnackerECT Ecotoxicology GmbH

Dr. Marie-Laure Janex Cirsee-ONDEO services-

The EU project POSEIDON is dealing with the elimination of pharmaceutical and personal care product residues in sewage treatment plants (STPs) and waterworks. Eight research groups from 7 European countries (France, Spain, Finland, Poland, Austria, Switzerland, Germany) are involved including SMEs.

Municipal wastewater contains a multitude of persistent organic compounds derived from the domestic application of active ingredients in pharmaceuticals and personal care products (PPCPs). In monitoring programs of European STP effluents 36 of 55 pharmaceuticals, including antibiotics, and metabolites were quantified.. More than 30 different pharmaceuticals belonging to nearly all important medicinal classes, including antibiotics, could be found up to the µg/L range in European rivers and streams. In 1 % of about 230 German groundwater samples mainly located close to polluted small rivers or streams the concentrations exceeded even 1 µg/L, and 25 % exhibited concentration levels above the limit of quantification.

Although environmental effect data are very rare , it is known that some compounds possess an extremely high biological potency. Furthermore, it is presumed that the presence of antibiotics leads to the formation of resistant bacterial strains in the environment.

Improvement of wastewater treatment guarantees that the contamination of the environment with antibiotics is lowered and that the costly end-of-pipe approach (drinking water treatment) can be reduced. One of the first crucial outcomes of the EU-project POSEIDON in preventing antibiotics contamination of receiving waters is the establishment of ozonation for treated wastewater. It showed that ozone-based oxidation processes have a high potential for the elimination of antibiotics. These predictions were confirmed by pilot scale experiments which were performed in the waste water treatment plant in Braunschweig (DE).

Furthermore, it can be predicted that the potential for the formation of resistant bacterial strains is lowered significantly because antibiotics were no longer detected in the ozonated wastewater.

For more information

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