Dutch Water Utilities oppose high levels of pesticides and PFAS in the Rhine and Meuse

24 Jan 2024 by The Water Diplomat

Dutch water utilities are expressing concern over PFAS and pesticide concentrations in the Rhine and Meuse rivers. Although the European Union announced its intention to ban the production of all per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances – abbreviated as PFAS - in September last year, the EU guidelines do not include their use in pesticides. The Union of Dutch Utilities VEWIN reportedly finds this situation unacceptable. The Dutch newspaper The Financial Times (Financieel Dagblad) quoted Harrie Timmer of the umbrella body of Dutch water utilities, VEWIN, as stating “It is very worrying that crop protection products do not fall under the proposed PFAS ban ..[...].. the approval policy for crop protection products applies much broader standards than is acceptable for drinking water sources.'

In 2023, researchers at the University of Amsterdam (UVA) found that levels of PFAS in drinking water from surface water sources exceed safe levels. PFAS substances, sometimes referred to as ‘forever chemicals’, are controversial because they are thought to be detrimental to health and slow to break down in the environment. The UVA researchers sampled raw and produced water in 18 different locations in the Netherlands which represented different sources and different processing techniques and found that PFAS is contained in all water sources and drinking water in the Netherlands. In 8 out of 11 cases, surface water exceeded the European Food Safety Agency norms, which have been adopted in the Netherlands.    

In 2022, the Dutch National Institute for Public Health and the Environment Netherlands’ Environmental Agency (RIVM) had advised to lower the concentrations of PFAS in drinking water to 20% of the limit proposed by health authorities. This was based on the fact that PFAS substances can enter the body via other pathways than through drinking water such as through food intake, consumer products and by breathing polluted air.   The RIVM announced that it would conduct more extensive research into the most effective ways to limit exposure to PFAS in the Netherlands.  In reaction to the RIVM report on PFAS in drinking water, Dutch Minister of Infrastructre and Water Mark Harbers requested a review of the effluent permits in such a way as to ensure a maximum concentration of 4,4 nanogrammes per litre .

In September 2023, The Water Diplomat reported that the quality of the Maas / Meuse River, shared by France, Belgium and the Netherlands had deteriorated further due to the discharge of harmful chemicals. Over the previous year, concentrations above the permitted levels had been measured for 79 substances. In 11% of all measurements of water quality along the river, pollution levels were found that were above the maximum set by European norms.  This led to a total of 62 halts on the intake of water for treatment for drinking water during 2022. In addition, the river's flow has declined because of climate change, resulting in less dilution of the harmful chemicals. As a result, RIWA, the Association of River Water Companies for the Maas / Meuse requested more transparency from Belgian and Dutch authorities about the indirect and direct discharge permits issued to companies.