Environmental impact

Limiting the release of micropollutants: a major challenge for the chemical and pharmaceutical industries


Producing pharmaceuticals involves handling active molecules. With that comes the risk of some of those - albeit a very small proportion - being released into the natural environment along with all the other by-products of the production process. The challenge lies in using innovative technology upstream to minimize the presence of these pharmaceutical and chemical micropollutants in the environment.


In 2017, the French population consumed pharmaceutical products worth more than €32 billion; that’s €490 per person. This market has tripled in size since 1990, perhaps as a result of a lack of awareness, but almost certainly as a result of an aging population requiring - and receiving - higher levels of care. One of the results of this trend has been the increasing level of micropollutants being discharged into the natural world.

This is a sensitive issue for the pharmaceutical industry, since the production of active molecules is by definition its core business. Despite its obligation to limit the impact of its activities on the living world and wildlife, the risk of pollution remains. So for these companies and those that release chemical micropollutants, the challenge is to reduce the quantities of these substances discharged into the environment in treated effluent from wastewater treatment plants. 


Treatment is central to the issues around pharmaceutical and chemical micropollutants

Today's discharge agreements impose compliance with a series of effluent discharge thresholds on the manufacturers of pharmaceuticals and chemicals. These thresholds are calculated to be compatible with the capacities of the public wastewater treatment plants that will ultimately treat their discharges. Unfortunately, these capacities are based on domestic wastewater, so they are not necessarily appropriate for resolving the issues around pharmaceutical and chemical micropollutants. Depending on the toxicity and/or concentration of micropollutants they receive, wastewater treatment plants may encounter technical problems with the water treatment process.

For the manufacturers concerned, there is a very real risk of being labeled as polluters, and all the more so given the increasing focus of environmental protection organizations on this form of pollution. Well versed in the latest scientific knowledge, they have the ability to trace even the smallest traces of pollution back to their source, and then demand that the polluter be held accountable in civil law, and sometimes in criminal law. 

The water control and inspection agencies may then produce statements and reports, and action may be taken through the public prosecutor’s office. So the issues around pharmaceutical and chemical micropollutants also have legal implications.


Water reuse is coming soon

Conversely, the issue of micropollutants can also be approached from the perspective of the opportunity it offers manufacturers to present themselves as companies with real respect for the environment in which they operate. They can do this by acting ahead of new standards on micropollutants, by identifying innovative technological solutions for the pretreatment of their discharges, and/or by working with the local authority that manages the relevant wastewater treatment plant and with environmental protection associations.

The issue of micropollutants is a reality at every stage of the industrial water cycle, so the ability to reuse water from its own treatment plant and reinject it at the start of the process is another potential advantage for industrial companies to treat their effluents more effectively and be seen to do so. In a wider context where saving water is becoming essential and the principles of the circular economy are assuming a greater importance, it will not be long before legislation opens the door to this opportunity. 

Once threshold values and minimum requirements have been set, manufacturers can involve the experts at Saur Industrie in installing innovative solutions designed to meet all these requirements. The end result will be further limitations on discharges of pharmaceutical and chemical micropollutants into the natural environment.


For more information on these issues, view our webinar on chemical and pharmaceutical micropollutants now. 

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