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Efficient measurement and assessment

Emerging contaminants

Emerging contaminants are a possible threat to the public health and environment. KWH develops smarter, more integrative, more efficient and cost-effective methods to measure and assess contaminants in water. This helps the water sector to perform human and environmental risk assessments of emerging contaminants, and make decisions about water treatment.

Emerging contaminants as a challenge to the water sector

Thousands of chemicals are used every day, and new ones are continually put on the market. Moreover, increasingly effective detection techniques are revealing the presence, in surface water for instance, of low concentrations of contaminants, whose presence was previously unknown. All these chemicals are used for a wide variety of purposes in sectors ranging from industry to medicine. The substances and their transformation products include groups that are possibly harmful to humans and the environment. Knowledge is needed to determine what the emerging contaminants might mean for the water sector. Whether emerging contaminants end up in the water, and what effect this might have on human health and the environment is often unknown beforehand.

Microplastics are a special case. The invention of plastic more than 100 years ago transformed our lives forever. Plastic is one of the most versatile materials ever produced and has had an impact on healthcare, as well as on the way we package things, eat, travel and dress. But its benefits have come at a cost. Plastic pollution in our marine environment is reaching a staggering scale, with 9.5 million tonnes of new plastic waste ending up in our oceans every year. Most if not all of it is the result of mismanaged urban and rural waste streams discharging into our surface waters. The widespread contamination of our oceans is also fast becoming a worldwide human health hazard, as plastic enters our food chain and water supplies.

When treating water, the water utilities want to know which substances or groups of substances they need to focus on. This requires advanced chemical-analytical techniques and bioassays, as well as innovations in priority setting and risk assessment.

New environmental pollutants pose challenges to the water sector

New environmental pollutants pose challenges to the water sector

Signalling and prioritising

KWH develops smarter, integrative, efficient and cost-effective methods to measure substances in water – as in the case of surface water, but also sewage water, in which residues of pharmaceuticals and illicit drugs are detected. We assess the toxicological risks, establish indicative health guidelines, and determine the behaviour of emerging contaminants during treatment. KWH also examines how these substances can be removed from the water if necessary. Our researchers are trained both in the signalling and prioritising emerging contaminants in the water cycle.

New techniques, such as non-target screening using high-resolution mass spectrometry, provide a more complete picture of water quality. Our researchers develop databases and methods to determine which substances are relevant. We also work on the further identification and quantification of the prioritised substances. In combination with bioassays, this permits us to determine the impact of emerging contaminants on public health or the aquatic environment, for instance.

High-resolution mass spectrometry (HRMS) and predictive toxicology (ToxCast) play a crucial role in the prioritisation and risk assessment of emerging contaminants in water.

Realistic risk assessments

KWH’s knowledge and skills help water utilities, Water Authorities, municipalities and industry to realistically assess the environmental and human risks of emerging contaminants, and make decisions about water treatment. The periodic monitoring of water quality can signal possible anomalies early on, allowing for the implementation of appropriate measures.

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The European-funded SOLUTIONS project contributed substantially to the Joint Danube Survey project, by analysing samples for a wide range of hazardous substances.