Pollutants in Freshwater: The Case of Pharmaceuticals

  • Anja Coors
  • Thomas Knacker


Man-made chemicals produced intentionally or inadvertently are threatening water resources worldwide. These so-called anthropogenic pollutants can be transported globally by air and water and may affect areas that were supposed pristine, such as the Antarctic or high mountain regions. This chapter deals with the question of how pollution of surface waters can be assessed and what is being done to avoid or limit pollution. An important regulatory measure is a procedure called environmental risk assessment. With this process, a chemical is evaluated for its potential environmental impact in a prospective way (i.e., before it is marketed after which it is likely to be released into the environment). Key aspects of environmental risk assessment are illustrated here using the example of pharmaceuticals, a group of anthropogenic chemicals that have only recently been recognized as potentially worrisome environmental pollutants.


Wastewater Treatment Plant Environmental Risk Assessment Ethinyl Estradiol Environmental Compartment Risk Quotient 
These keywords were added by machine and not by the authors. This process is experimental and the keywords may be updated as the learning algorithm improves.



 Chapter 3 is dedicated to the memory of Thomas Knacker, whose untimely death preceded its publication. We appreciate the valuable comments of Ed Topp and Jan Koschorreck on an earlier version of this chapter.

Selected parts of an earlier version of this chapter have been published previously in German as Knacker T. and Coors A.: Ökotoxikologische Bewertung von anthropogenen Stoffen. acatech Materialien Nr. 10. Munich, 2011.



Micrograms (one millionth of a gram) per liter


Chemical used to kill mites




Pharmaceutical used to treat bacterial infections


Process by which a chemical substance increases its concentration in a living organism over time, compared to the chemical’s concentration in the environment

Biological Diversity

Variety of life on earth, including diversity of ecosystems, species, and genes and the ecological processes that support them.


Sludge produced during wastewater treatment


Subgroup of arthropods that includes, among others, crabs and lobsters


Persistent insecticide that is now banned from most uses, except in some parts of the world (e.g., for malaria control)


Anti-inflammatory pain-relieving pharmaceutical


Complex of living organisms, their physical environment, and their interrelations in a particular unit of space


Field of science that integrates toxicology and ecology

Endocrine Disruptor

Substance that interferes with the hormonal system of living organisms, including but not limited to humans

Ethinyl Estradiol

Synthetic derivative of the natural hormone estradiol; an active substance in contraceptive pills


Excess primary bioproduction caused by increased input of nutrients

Environmental Exposure

Contact of an organism with an agent (e.g., a chemical) in the environment


Psychoactive pharmaceutical prescribed, for example, for severe depression

Food Web

Ecological concept that describes an ecosystem based the connections of species in a network of energy transfer

Green Design

Consideration of the potential environmental impact of a pharmaceutical during its development and production


Area within which a particular organism lives


Potential of a substance to cause adverse effects in an organism, system, or (sub)population exposed to that substance

Heavy Metal

Group of metallic elements defined, for example, by high atomic weights or density (e.g., mercury, chromium, cadmium, arsenic, lead)


Substance produced in one part of the body and functions as a messenger to influence cells in other parts of the body

In vitro Test

Bioassay conducted outside living organisms by using, for example, cell cultures


Individual organisms with features of both sexes


Measured environmental concentration of a substance under study in a specific environment

Municipal Wastewater

Wastewater that is the composite of liquid and water-carried wastes associated with the use of water for drinking, cooking, cleaning, washing, hygiene, sanitation, or other domestic purposes


No observed effect concentration of a chemical


Chemical compounds that are involved in the construction of living tissue and are needed by both plants and animals


Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development


Organism that lives in or on another organism (the host) at the expense of this host


Disease-causing organism


Polychlorinated biphenyl


Predicted environmental concentration of a chemical


Relates to the time scale during which a substance can be degraded by natural mechanisms


Substance, preparation, or organism used to control or destroy any pest


Group of chemicals designed to treat medical conditions and diseases or fight parasites in humans and animals


Predicted no effect concentration of a chemical

Polar Substance

Characterized by a difference in electric charge across the molecule; usually dissolve better in water than nonpolar substances


Pollutant that has recently been discovered


Contamination of the environment with a pollutant (e.g., a chemical or noise) that has a negative effect

Pristine Area

Area thought to be not affected by human activities


Compound in the body that binds a drug and causes an effect

Renal Failure

Sudden loss of kidney functionality

Risk Assessment

Formal process by which the risk resulting from a specific use or occurrence of a chemical or physical agent is evaluated


Tendency for particles in suspension to settle out of water and rest against a barrier (on rocks, the bottom, plants)


Semi-solid stream of materials in sewage after removal of coarse, insoluble materials


Degree to which a substance can harm living organisms

Trophic Level/Position

Simple ecological food chain possibly consisting of three trophic levels: primary producer (plant), primary consumer (herbivore), and secondary consumer (predator)


Small animals that live floating in open water bodies


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Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media New York 2013

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.ECT Oekotoxikologie GmbHFlörsheim/MainGermany

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