Parliament committee fails to rein in river pollution by gender-bending drugs

Press release - November 27, 2012
Brussels – The European Parliament’s environment committee today supported taking advantage of the links between different pieces of legislation that affect water pollution to help phase out the most dangerous chemicals. In its vote the committee also recognised water pollution from certain pharmaceuticals as serious, but failed to set limits recommended by scientists to ensure they are reduced and filtered out of rivers and lakes, said Greenpeace.

Last week, Greenpeace launched the latest stage in its Detox campaign, challenging global brands like Zara to phase out toxic chemicals from their supply chains. To accompany the launch of the Report "Toxic Threads: The Big Fashion Stitch Up" Greenpeace commissioned a series of 'fashion' shoots to highlight how clothes that contain hazardous chemicals contribute to toxic water pollution both when they are made, and when they are washed.


In a vote on the European Commission’s proposal [1] to expand the EU’s Water Framework Directive, MEPs backed a progressive measure to link the phase out of dangerous chemicals under the Water Framework Directive to other pieces of EU chemicals legislation, such as REACh (Registration, Evaluation, Authorisation and Restriction of Chemicals). This cross-linking would allow chemicals with serious health effects, including those linked to cancer, to be addressed by whichever legislation allows for the speediest phase out.

The environment committee also supported the listing of two oestrogen chemicals, used in contraceptive pills, and one anti-inflammatory chemical (diclofenac), used in painkillers, as “priority substances” that EU countries must monitor. But MEPs did not endorse the Commission’s proposed limits for their presence in water systems, despite strong scientific evidence of their harmful effects on fish and other animal species.

These chemicals could be allowed to accumulate in waterways until 2027, after the next legislative review schedule, warned Greenpeace. Pharmaceutical industry lobbyists claim that measures to improve water treatment to reduce pollution from dangerous chemicals would cost too much, but have ignored the financial and health costs of inaction.

Researchers have found that a large proportion of male fish in Europe’s rivers already display female characteristics, including female sexual organs, as a result of the presence of oestrogen in the water. A study in Canada also found that lower sperm levels in male fish led to a crash in population numbers. [2]

A report on the effects of anti-inflammatory drug diclofenac in Pakistan found that it caused a crash in vulture populations that had eaten dead livestock which had been treated with the drug. The drug is also linked to organ failure in fish and birds, while its breakdown in the aquatic environments is also a concern. [3]

Greenpeace EU chemicals policy director Kevin Stairs said: “The parliament’s environment committee is only skimming the surface on the serious issue of water pollution. These pharmaceuticals have well-documented and serious effects on the environment and animals that live in our rivers and lakes. The evidence is alarming and the EU and its governments should act to protect our environment, our health and the integrity of the scientific process.”     

The Parliament is expected to vote on the proposal in plenary by the end of January 2013.

Last week, Greenpeace launched the latest stage in its Detox campaign, challenging global brands like Zara to phase out toxic chemicals from their supply chains [4]. As a direct result of the campaign, a number of companies, including Nike and Adidas, have already pledged to put in place action plans and a 2020 timetable to phase out all dangerous chemicals that end up in water.

Notes to editors:

[1] Commission proposal on the Water Framework Directive:

[2] UK study on feminisation of male fish:

Canadian study on fish population collapse: Kidd KA, Blanchfield PJ, Mills KH, Palace VP, Evans RE, Lazorchak JM and RW Flick (2007) - Collapse of a fish population after exposure to synthetic oestrogen. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, May 22, 2007, Vol. 104, No. 21, pp. 8897-8901.

[3] Vulture and fish die-off study:

[4] Detox Zara:



Kevin Stairs – Greenpeace EU chemicals policy director: +32 (0)476 961376,

Greenpeace EU pressdesk: +32 (0)2 274 1911,


For breaking news and comment on EU affairs:

Greenpeace is an independent global campaigning organisation that acts to change attitudes and behaviour, to protect and conserve the environment and to promote peace. Greenpeace does not accept donations from governments, the EU, businesses or political parties.