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What for?

What for? Tame-Water
What for? Tame-Water

Giving water back its value to reap immediate benefits

The value of water is a very underestimated lever in the search for economic performance and beyond the prosperity targeted by sustainable development. The exact calculation of prices per cubic metre is misleading: both the industrials who pay for its use and the producers who invoice it can benefit from introducing new factors into this equation, because the unknown biological impact of water always has hidden costs. Similarly, identifying and reducing pollution at its source rather than dealing with an accumulation of problems at the end of the chain ultimately benefits everyone, including financially.

In industry, poor control of water as a raw material or waste, of its circuits and processes can cost a whole lot more than the producer's monthly invoice shows. An industrial that manages a sewage treatment plant, even outside the framework of an ICPE (Installations Classified for the Protection of the Environment), does so as a result of its main activity, not as a water professional. Accidental structure failures and the limitations of certain processes can have a direct impact on its production, both in quantity and quality: poor management literally means losing money. In fact, few professionals do not focus on finding ways to improve obvious dysfunctions, but with far too limited success. It is unacceptable for a large paper manufacturing site to halt its production because its sewage treatment plant biomass regularly dies off for unknown reasons. Similarly, it is unacceptable for a large pharmaceutical/chemical manufacturing site to be regularly criticised for environmental damage even though all measures are taken to respect the social and environmental contract. The blockage is often due to the use of historically robust but inappropriate investigation methods and parameters: the use of biological indicators very often makes it possible to unravel the threads of problems that cannot be solved using conventional measurements. If these examples are compelling, it is because they are drawn from real standard cases - and then real successes. Here, a state-of-the-art paper production site unknowingly introduces toxic content into its total effluents that is harmful to its treatment plant, via a very specific sub-effluent that represents only 3% of its flow by volume. Its production risks being halted twice a month, but toxicity had never been measured before. This 3% is easily and cheaply manageable once the right diagnosis has been made using innovative methods. There, a chemical production site is in the hot seat, even though it has always respected strict discharge agreements, and is acquiring top-of-the-range tertiary treatment for tens or even hundreds of thousands of euros. Downstream damage in the receiving environment does not however disappear, to the dissatisfaction of professionals, populations and elected officials: toxicity persists despite the effective reduction of all  traditionally explored parameters. Experiments with bioassays will make it possible to conclude that the grading of the activated carbon used was in fact not suitable, or the  ultraviolet oxidation was too powerful, thereby generating toxic by-products within the effluents: two simple adjustments once the situation is correctly analysed, generating direct savings. Finally, a tradesman, garage owner or painter, for example, who wants to adopt a virtuous approach using a small-scale treatment device may be overwhelmed by the difficulty of choosing between multiple solutions. A quick biological study can arbitrate by highlighting the most effective solution for a successful investment. Obviously, the issue of correct diagnosis using biological and modern methods concerns all the players and stakeholders in the sector. While there has been much talk of industrials here, there are just as many cases of innovative mapping of the contributions and sensitive points of pollution over an entire catchment area by territorial or resource managers. They are particularly valuable in the context of efforts to reduce pollution at source, which are characterised, by definition, by multiple, diffuse and difficult to identify contributions: a study using enlightening indicators can thus save the cost of multiple and unsuccessful subsequent campaigns. 

Health and safety, both routine and for alerts

Water is a vital and therefore precious resource. Ensuring that it is safe to drink has always been a public health concern, but its protection from deliberate contamination is becoming a major issue in a context where the entire drinking water production, storage and delivery system is increasingly seen as vulnerable to malicious or terrorist acts. It is therefore crucial to have relevant and effective warning tools.

The sanitary quality of drinking water, whether bottled or publicly distributed, is a  fact of society: citizens consider that public authorities are fully and permanently responsible for guaranteeing it, regardless of its distribution channels. Water intended for human consumption is therefore subject to routine harmlessness and purity checks which are the source of major historical progress - alongside sewage treatment - in the field of public hygiene. However, the modern socio-political context is marked by the emergence of multiple tensions and threats, some of which are specifically recognised as having the potential to impact the quality of drinking water and, ultimately, harm the population. The Middle East has recently been marked by acts described by the international press as "water wars", but Europe is unfortunately not exempt of danger: Germany is thus drawing up legislation creating a duty for households to have the equivalent of a reserve of 5 days water supply to "prepare for threatening events" and French political leaders have themselves reminded of the risk of chemical and bacteriological weapons used against drinking water. French water sector players, whether public or private, are among the 218 French essential operators (OIV). In this respect, article L. 1321-23 of the French Public Health Code requires the person in charge of production or distribution to permanently monitor the quality of water intended for human consumption and communities of more than 10,000 inhabitants have a duty to carry out "a regular study characterising the vulnerability of its water production and distribution facilities to deliberate malicious acts". Article L. 1321-1 of the same Code stipulates that continuing to meet the population's priority needs during crisis situations is a duty for all public drinking water service operators. In all cases, whether about the usual public health problems such as micro-pollutants, the effectiveness and management of drinking water treatment facilities or finally the preparation for natural, accidental or intentional crisis situations, the implementation of specific tools must be a priority. 

Reconciling legal obligations and innovation

Water sector players face everyday challenges. When they are not expected by regulations or public opinion to protect the environment, the rest of the time they have to manage an advanced activity subject to the quality risks of resources for which they are not responsible. In order to remedy this, both in the monitoring of water use or production processes and in the qualification of pollution (suffered or released), the use of biological methods allows informed decision-making.

A sewage or drinking water syndicate does not have the same expectations and constraints as a grouping of local authorities or the populations that are its users and inhabitants. However, water pollution affects them in many ways as managers, administrators or citizens and the protection of the various environments is ultimately everyone's business. France naturally has its own ambitious legislative framework (in addition to European laws) which reflects the importance of this issue, but it is legitimate to further add social competitiveness (technological, economic) and human or environmental health considerations. Article L210-1 clearly states that "water is part of the nation's shared assets. Its protection, enhancement and the development of the usable resource, while respecting natural balances, are in the general interest". More specifically, Article L. 211-7 of the French Environment Code empowers local authorities, groups and mixed water syndicates, to carry out and operate works, structures or installations recognised as being of general interest or emergency interest. Since January 2018, the GEMAPI competence on the management of aquatic environments has even become a mandatory competence of public inter-local authority cooperation establishments, which fully includes the protection and preservation of aquatic ecosystems. Relevant environmental assessments are therefore a duty in compliance with national or European laws *(insertion here of a link to the Env. management  box for the WFD?)* relating to the objectives of good environmental ecological status. Beyond these fundamentals, innovative approaches to water quality assessment unravel the complex web of pollution reduction problems at source in relation to the identification of the contributors. In the vast majority of cases, the latter are penalised by the limitations of historical approaches and far from the unscrupulous polluters that a certain imagination readily depicts. These same approaches are proving to be poorly adapted to and sized for micro- pollutant issues, which are of concern to both institutions and sewage treatment structure or drinking water treatment facility operators. In a context where contamination is diffuse, multiple, fluctuating and characterised by mostly unpredictable chemical and biological interactions, mapping the quality of a watercourse or ensuring that a treatment system costing hundreds of thousands of euros can overcome, for example, the presence of endocrine disruptors, is part of the same commitment: to use advanced techniques that have proven their worth to all. 

Innovative assessments for useful results

The European Water Framework Directive (WFD) requires community member states to achieve good ecological status for inland and coastal water bodies during iterative assessment phases followed by remediation actions. At the same time, France has chosen to adopt an even more advanced approach through the Search for Dangerous Substances in the Environment programmes (RSDE). From governing bodies down to field operators, the priority is therefore placed on solutions that provide relevant and actionable data to ensure effective management of environmental issues related to historical pollution or micro-pollutants, so that each stakeholder can best meet its commitments.

Since 23 October 2000, Directive 2000/60/EC (WFD) adopted by both the European Parliament and the Council sets up a framework for a comprehensive Community water policy. It aims to prevent and reduce water pollution, promote its sustainable use, protect the environment, improve the status of aquatic ecosystems (wetlands) and mitigate the effects of floods and droughts. The WFD defines the good status of water bodies according to environmental criteria including legal concentration objectives (EQS for "Environmental Quality Standards") for a list of so-called priority substances at the community level (in particular Directive 2008/105/EC), with 6-year management cycles and a deadline for reaching the targets by 2027 (2021-2027 management cycle following the current 2015-2021 cycle). In all cases, the WFD is the major element of European regulations concerning the protection of fresh, brackish or salt waters, whether surface or underground, known as "transitional" and coastal water resources. France has set itself specific and ambitious targets in the RSDE, which has worked to create an overview of the substances present in industrial effluents by activity. Bioassays are not the direct subject of the RSDE or the EQS, reflected by the concentration limits for the lists of hazardous/priority substances in Directive 2013/39/EU which amends above-mentioned Directive 2008/105/EC. Nevertheless, the duty to achieve the  good ecological status targets explicitly requires an integrated approach to monitoring and assessing surface water quality (environment, impact on the receiving environment for sewage and efficiency of associated processes). These assessments should take into account the biological effects at the local aquatic fauna and flora population/community level based on specific ecological quality indices (Annex V), but leave considerable leeway for bioassays on organisms and cell cultures in the laboratory. Specifically, the regulation’s Common Implementation Strategies (CIS)  mention the importance of bioassays within the more general framework of the means and purposes of the WFD. In particular, document n°19 (/Surface water chemical monitoring /) refers to bioassays in relation to the need to introduce techniques to improve assessment quality and reduce its cost as new tools become available. CIS document No3 (/Analysis of Pressures and Impacts/) calls for the potential risk of cumulative effects of substances with similar modes of action to be taken into account in pressure and impact assessments, which is one of the strengths of biological effects-based methods. Documents 7 (/Monitoring under the Water Framework Directive), /25 (/Chemical Monitoring of Sediment and Biota/) and 27 (/Deriving Environmental Quality Standards/) also refer to bioassays, particularly in the context of sediment measurements. These issues are further explored in an August 2014 technical report (NORMAN scientific network) focusing on the issue of assessments based on biological effects in water and the benefit they can provide in the management of environmental monitoring in Europe (risk, alert, information/cost ratio, etc.). In all cases, it is clear that biological effects measurement approaches must be part of the decision-making process. In addition to their importance in achieving the good ecological status targets required by the European Community, they are valuable allies in qualifying water treatment processes, where the reduction of conventional substances and factors does not necessarily mean biological safety at the outlet, or in the management of treatment facilities in order to adapt the various parameters to the pollution pressure load. 

The power of biotechnology adapted to the world of water

Water pollution in the 21st century is characterised by the constant appearance of new molecules on the market, and therefore in the environment in native or modified forms. Furthermore, these substances are generally produced on the basis of intentional chemical or biological activity/reactivity. This leads to the current problem of micro-pollutants: a multitude of substances present at minimal concentrations - from which they take their name - but  which are known to have varied and worrying effects on living organisms. Modern water pollution thus calls for new approaches to support physical-chemical analytical tools, which remain regulatory references but which have various limitations in this context.

Human activity has radically changed the nature of environmental contamination, first during the period known as the Industrial Revolution and then even more so in the last 60 years with the rise of the chemicals industry. Thus, in barely a century, anthropogenic pollution has gone from the dispersal of essentially mineral contaminants which are relatively localised to well-identified industrial production sites, to the widespread appearance of increasingly complex and renewed organic molecules used by everyone in their everyday life in an infinite variety of ways. These substances are very often chemically reactive or biologically active: the activity of medication, personal care products, plant protection products or ingredients in their formulation is thus consciously sought, at the very basis of their marketing. A study by ONEMA and INERIS in 2012 thus identified the presence of parabens, powerful biocides used as preservatives, in 99% of tested samples. Equally worrying, a large number of petroleum-based products such as plastics, polymers and associated additives have also been found to have adverse effects on living organisms, with no initial link to the chemical reactivity that governed their design. This is the case for most species that act as endocrine disruptors. It is not only a question of risks to ecosystems: some pollution is thus highly suspect of being linked to the resistance phenomena of certain micro-organisms, potentially making the urban water cycle more vulnerable in terms of drinking water supply. The stakes are therefore both health and environmental and it is important to better understand the dynamics of these substances in drinking water and sewage systems and their impact on the receiving environment. Water treatment methods cannot be adequately adapted to these problems without a specific and relevant approach. The limits of substance concentration measurement approaches are obvious in a context where the lists of substances to be monitored - and the associated technical and financial constraints - are constantly lengthening while systematically lagging behind markets and consumption patterns. Moreover, this is without counting on the extreme complexity of the transformation of substances into mixtures in environments and networks, which is constantly accompanied by the appearance of unexpected (or even unknown) secondary products, at the root of recurrent problems such as the detection of drug residues in drinking water. It is therefore necessary to adopt renewed means of investigation specifically targeting the challenges of modern water pollution: bioassays are thus highlighted by the scientific community as urgently needing to be included in decision-making and management mechanisms. 

Sea and saline effluents: innovation for extreme conditions

The European Water Framework Directive (WFD) does not only apply to inland waters, but also includes a deepening aspect of seawater quality in the form of a general directive, the Marine Strategy Framework Directive (MSFD), as well as a convention specific to the North-East Atlantic marine environment (OSPAR). These marine guidelines are much more developed in terms of the use of biological methods than the WFD in their requirement to determine the anthropogenic pressures and their impacts on species and ecosystems. In addition, brackish environments and saline industrial effluents present the same challenges and require specific tools to characterise their quality or compliance that take into account their specific challenges.

Approved on 17 June 2008, the Marine Strategy Framework Directive 2008/56/EC (MSFD) is the counterpart for sea / salt / brackish waters to the Water Framework Directive, which defines the overall Community policy on inland and fresh water. It includes and contributes to enriching the OSPAR international convention (for "Oslo-Paris", the first version of which dates from 25 March 1998) which links 16 countries in the North-East Atlantic area - including the English Channel, the North Sea and the Baltic, the latter also being the subject of specific actions - and the European Community as a whole. The MED POL programme represents an equivalent to OSPAR in the Mediterranean, even if the diagnostic tools investigated are not necessarily identical. The MSFD is, like the WFD, the subject of 6-year management cycles, including a succession of inventories, orientations and decisions for the next cycle, the most recent of which began in 2018 and will therefore last until 2024. In this respect, the Commission revised the criteria for the achievement of good status in 2017 in Directive 2017/845 and the annex dealing with eco-systemic components, anthropogenic pressures and their effect on marine environments through the 2017/848 amendment to Directive 2010/477/EU. In any case, all these systems, whether community-wide or restricted, show the same findings concerning the approach to water and  environment quality: the MSFD gives much more importance to biological tests compared to conventional analytical measurements, than the WFD. The indicators under investigation / validation are therefore varied and above all require in-depth expertise. For example, the HELCOM Baltic Sea Quality Commission proposes 6 main criteria including imposex biomarkers, lysosomal membrane stability, fish disease indexes, micronucleus induction, malformation of amphipod embryos or zoarcidae larvae. In addition, 3 experimental criteria are being tested: vitellogenin induction, acetylcholinesterase activity, EROD/CYP1A activity. The CEMP coordinated environmental monitoring programme, which is mandatory for all OSPAR signatories and of variable application outside that framework, recommends methods as varied as the EROD/CYP1A activity mentioned above, DNA adducts, PAH metabolites in bile, histopathology of the liver of marine species and macroscopic nodules, ALA-D, metallothionein tests and more. This diversity of methods is therefore a long way from the limited range applied to fresh / inland waters, and the recommendations focus more on strategies and approaches than on individually imposed tests. A single observation emerges: to be consistent with European Community obligations on marine environments, it is necessary to implement panels of biological tools covering a wide range of organisms, targets and effects. This context offers unexpected positive benefits beyond the specific theme of marine environments: the incentive to develop robust biological methods compatible with very high salt content solutions. They then make bioassays accessible to a whole type of aqueous matrices that until now presented too many challenges, namely industrial effluents rich in ionic species in solution. The players concerned now have the opportunity to characterise and monitor their process water and effluents using state-of-the-art methods - until recently they were confined to very general or even inadequate indicators which, for want of anything better, proved to be in flagrant contradiction with their requirement to respect their environment in the broader sense or the expectations expressed by users and various residents. Thanks to ambitious marine regulations, activities using or producing highly saline waters can now fully express their commitment to sustainable and economically beneficial development.