Invisible Threats: Navigating the Challenges of Detecting and Preventing New POPs in Water

Thursday 16 May 2024

  • We are exposed to POPs through multiple avenues, such as the food we eat, the air we breathe, and our surroundings both outdoors and indoors, including workplaces. Many everyday products we use either previously contained or still contain these persistent organic pollutants.
  • POPs travel long distances and are found throughout the global environment, transported by various means, reaching regions where they have never been produced or used. Clearly, water is no exception to this phenomenon, and the Mediterranean Sea is not exempt from its effects.

The environmental state of the Mediterranean Sea is visibly deteriorating due to a multitude of human activities. The densely populated coastal areas, combined with the bustling tourism industry, place immense strain on essential resources like water, food, and energy, resulting in escalating pollution levels. This exerts a significant toll on vulnerable coastal and marine ecosystems, leading to the loss and degradation of coastal and shallow marine habitats. Furthermore, the scarcity of freshwater along the coast exacerbates these challenges. As a response to combatting these threats, Global Environment Facility (GEF) funded “Mediterranean Sea Programme: Enhancing Environmental Security (GEF ID 9607)” was developed where United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) and the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD) are the two GEF Implementing Agencies and the United Nations Environment Programme / Mediterranean Action Plan (UNEP/MAP) is the lead Executing Agency.

MedProgramme: Enhancing Environmental Security

The MedProgramme represents the first GEF programmatic multi-focal area initiative in the Mediterranean Sea. It is implemented in ten beneficiary countries sharing the Mediterranean basin (Albania, Algeria, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Egypt, Lebanon, Libya, Montenegro, Morocco, Tunisia, and Türkiye), aiming to reduce transboundary environmental stresses, strengthen climate resilience and water security, and improve the health and livelihoods of coastal populations in the Mediterranean region through eight different child projects.

MedWaves, the UNEP/MAP Regional Activity Centre for Sustainable Consumption and Production (hereinafter, MedWaves), as one of the executing partners of the MedProgramme, supports the necessary transformation to address the challenges facing the Mediterranean region, and implements activities under the Child Project 1.1 – “Reducing Pollution from Harmful Chemicals and Wastes in Mediterranean Hot Spots and Measuring Progress to Impacts”.

2nd Annual Stocktaking Meeting of the GEF-funded MedProgramme

In the context of the 2nd Annual Stocktaking Meeting (22-24 April 2024, Podgorica – Montenegro) of the GEF-funded MedProgramme, a roundtable on “Invisible Threat: New Persistent Organic Pollutants (POPs) in Water – Challenges in Detection and Prevention” was co-led by MedWaves together with the EBRD, one of the GEF Implementing Agencies of the MedProgramme and the executing agency of Child Project 1.3 – Financing for Advanced Environmental Technologies in the Mediterranean Sea Region for Water Systems & Clean Coasts (ENVITECC).

MedWaves and EBRD, representing different Child Projects under the MedProgramme, joined forces in an exemplary collaboration to bring the new POPs in water problem to the attention of the Mediterranean countries.

The aim of the roundtable was to address the challenges related to identifying and preventing new POPs as emerging pollutants in water systems by bringing real-life cases that highlights the intricate connection between water and POPs, emphasizing the urgent need for legislators and countries to address this pressing issue.

Exposure to POPs can lead to serious health effects including certain cancers, birth defects, dysfunctional immune and reproductive systems, greater susceptibility to disease and damages to the central and peripheral nervous systems. These pollutants can become widely distributed geographically, accumulate in the fatty tissue of humans and wildlife, and have harmful impacts on human health and the environment. The challenge of addressing POPs is beyond the work of one government acting alone.

The roundtable provided several key information to the participants: 

  • Ongoing expansion of the list of “new POPs” under the Stockholm Convention following thorough assessments by the POPs Review Committee. In May 2023, Annex A to the Stockholm Convention has been amended to include methoxychlor (without specific exemptions, decision SC-11/9), dechlorane plus (with specific exemptions, decision SC-11/10) and UV-328 (with specific exemptions, decisions SC-11/11).
  • Forever Pollution Project” published in Le Monde in 2023 mapping the known and presumed PFAS pollution problem across Europe through a cross-disciplinary investigation led by journalists.
  • No one is immune to POPs as revealed in a recent study highlighting presence of PFAS in the blood of the EU politicians.
  • PFAS – well known as “forever chemicals” – are only a subgroup of POPs representing thousands of synthetic chemicals. PFAS is present in various items such as non-stick cookware, upholstery, fire-fighting foams, and food packaging.
  • In view of the public health concerns of PFAS, the World Health Organization (WHO) initiated the development of a background document for the Guidelines for Drinking-Water Quality on PFAS in Drinking Water 
  • On 10 April 2024, US EPA announced the final National Primary Drinking Water Regulation, establishing legally enforceable levels, called Maximum Contaminant Levels (MCLs), for six PFAS in drinking water. 
  • Challenges and limitations in detection methods, not all POPs can be accurately determined in every matrix, and different methods may yield vastly different results.

The roundtable participants from the ministries, academia and executing partners highlighted the following areas of future action needs: 

  • Identification and prioritization of main industrial sources of new POPs produced/released/imported at national level to channel efforts to eliminate use and their introduction to the ecosystem.
  • Tailor made country specific capacity building is necessary to raise awareness on new POPs for all relevant institutions (e.g. environmental regulators, industry, customs).

By highlighting this critical global issue, the roundtable sought to bring the hidden threat of POPs into the spotlight and emphasize the urgent need for collective action. Effective solutions to this widespread environmental challenge can only be achieved through international cooperation.