Environment agency finds high levels of antibiotics in sewage effluent

High concentrations of antibiotics that could pose a significant risk to the aquatic environment have been detected in several wastewater treatment works in Northern Ireland, according to the environment agency.

Following the results of a Freedom of Information request published this week, the Northern Ireland Environment Agency (NIEA) has confirmed antibiotic concentrations have been detected in all of the 13 wastewater treatment plants (WWTWs) it has monitored in Northern Ireland over the summer, with particularly high amounts of antibiotics which could be harmful at the Belfast, Newtownbreda and Glenstall (lower Bann) WWTWs.

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EU Directive 2014/101/EU: Amending Directive 2000/60/EC of the European Parliament and of the Council establishing a framework for Community action in the field of water policy

In force/
Current
Legislation
EU
Published
05 Nov 2014

Compliance Dates

20/11/2014 Comes into force, 20/05/2016 Transposition deadline

Characteristics

Subject

Water

Source

EU OJ (Official Journal of the European Union)

Affected Sectors

Cross-sector Water Public Sector
ECM

EU Directive 2014/101/EU: Amending Directive 2000/60/EC of the European Parliament and of the Council establishing a framework for Community action in the field of water policy

Document Status: In force/Current

Scope: EU

Compliance:

20/11/2014 Comes into force, 20/05/2016 Transposition deadline

While environmental quality standards (EQS) are required under the Water Framework Directive, there are no legal limits for antibiotics and no EQS either. EU member states are instead required to monitor for substances that may pose a significant risk to or via the aquatic environment, but where there is not currently enough monitoring data to be sure.

Such substances are set out on a ‘watch list’. 

Several antibiotics detected by the NIEA at three sites, such as erythromycin and clarithromycin, are on the UK’s ‘watch list’, and were found at or above the predicted no-effect concentration for the environment (PNEC-ENV) – a measurement used by the European Chemicals Agency to assess environmental risk. Azithromycin was detected at seven WWTWs at or above the PNEC-ENV.

Overall, the NIEA found at least eight out of a total of 33 antibiotics screened for at the 13 WWTWs it monitored. All 12 receiving waters 2km downstream of the WWTS had antibiotics detections against Azithromycin (7), Clarithromycin (12), Trimethroprim (10) and Sulamethoxazole, it added.

The NIEA also found a “significant concentration of Tilmicosin” downstream of the Belfast WWTW, which is an antibiotic meant only for veterinary use for treating bovine respiratory disease and enzootic pneumonia. The agency took a reading of 11 micrograms per litre (µg/l) of tilmicosin, which was 11 times the concentration of the next highest concentration of antibiotic Erythromycin, which stood at 0.95µg/l.

The agency said more data relating to groundwaters, water bodies near to pig and poultry farms, care home consented discharges and fish farms will become available in 2020. 

Separately, the UK Antimicrobial resistance (AMR) strategy is due to be renewed at the end of 2019 which is intended to support the government’s “UK 20-year vision for antimicrobial resistance”.

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