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UNCORRECTED TRANSCRIPT OF ORAL EVIDENCE
To be published as HC 932 -i
House of COMMONS
TAKEN BEFORE the
Science and Technology Committee
Wednesday 27 february 2013
RICHARd aYLARD CVO, marco lattughi and mike murray
neil runnalls, professor andrew johnson and DR ROB COLLINS
DR SUE KINSEY and PROFESSOR RICHARD THOMPSON
Evidence heard in Public Questions 1 - 94
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Taken before the Science and Technology Committee
on Wednesday 27 February 2013
Andrew Miller (Chair)
Examination of Witnesses
Witnesses: Richard Aylard CVO, External Affairs and Sustainability Director, Thames Water, Marco Lattughi, Senior Operations Manager, RPS Group, on behalf of the Environmental Industries Commission, and Mike Murray, Technical Affairs Manager, Association of the British Pharmaceutical Industry, gave evidence.
Q1 Chair: Good morning, gentlemen. Thank you very much for coming in. This is the beginning of a new inquiry for us. There has been a fair amount of press comment recently and a number of statements from companies about different aspects of water quality. Certainly we, as constituency Members of Parliament, do from time to time have issues raised with us from the public. So we thought it was an appropriate area for us to examine, particularly in terms of what is happening at an EU level as well. For the record, I would be grateful if the three of you would introduce yourselves.
Richard Aylard: I am Richard Aylard. I am the external affairs and sustainability director at Thames Water.
Marco Lattughi: I am Marco Lattughi. I am the senior operations manager for RPS, acting on behalf of the Environmental Industries Commission.
Mike Murray: I am Mike Murray. I am technical affairs manager for the Association of the British Pharmaceutical Industry.
Q2 Chair: Thank you very much. First of all, should the 15 chemicals proposed by the Commission be added to the priority substances list? Who should pay for controlling these chemicals?
Richard Aylard: Shall I start? We would say that they should not be added to the list-at least not yet. The reasons for that are, first of all, that the evidence for this is weak. Secondly, the costs of dealing with these substances to the levels suggested would be enormous, and I don’t use that word lightly. We are running into many billions of pounds for customers. Thirdly, the carbon costs have not been factored into the equation. If we apply the additional treatment that is being talked about, then we are going to be using an awful lot more carbon in treating waste water. Certainly we would not want to see these substances listed yet. There is clearly a case for more research, but the evidence does not support it at the moment.
As for who should pay, in this country, as the Committee will know, all water and wastewater expenditure is paid for by customers, provided it is efficiently incurred on their behalf by water companies. Ofwat are the guardians of whether we are doing our job efficiently or not. If these substances had to be controlled, it would then become a legal requirement on us. That would then be funded, to the extent that we needed to do it, by the regulator, and that would be reflected in customers’ bills, which could go up by as much as £100 a year. Again, I don’t use that figure lightly and am very happy to provide a written explanation of how that calculation has been arrived at. We would be talking about applying the same sorts of treatment that we currently use for drinking water to be applied to our sewage effluent going back into rivers. In Thames Water alone, we treat 4.5 billion litres of waste water every day, so you would be talking about treating that volume to drinking water standards to put it back in the environment. There may be an environmental benefit that justifies that-we haven’t seen it yet-but what it will not do is change drinking water quality because drinking water is already treated to a very high standard.
Q3 Chair: Do you also concur with that?
Marco Lattughi: Yes and no. At the minute it is good to look at other substances that are present. From a European level it is a welcome addition in looking at new substances. The lack of evidence at the minute to warrant their inclusion is pretty low. We need more studies and investigation into understanding whether they are effectively toxic at these levels. The main issue we have as an industry is that the levels at which we have to monitor these substances are so low that there is no technology available to monitor the levels in the water system. So we would be spending a lot of money treating something that we cannot actually measure. What we propose is more funded studies into the toxicology of these chemicals at these low doses prior to an inclusion in the scope for treatment, because the costs of treatment could exceed £27 million and above alone.
Mike Murray: Certainly in relation to the three pharmaceuticals, we would agree that they should not be included in the proposed list of priority substances. We are not aware of any evidence of any population effect in the environment that is attributable to the very low levels of pharmaceutical residues that are found in the environment due to the use of medicinal products.
In relation to drinking water there are a number of published reports, including those from the Drinking Water Inspectorate in England and Wales and, more recently, the World Health Organisation, which have all come to the same or essentially the same conclusion, that, at the very low levels at which pharmaceutical residues are found in drinking water, it is extremely unlikely that they would have any significant adverse effect on human health.
Q4 Chair: You are saying essentially-correct me if I am wrong-that the Commission’s proposals are not evidence-based. Is that right?
Marco Lattughi: Yes.
Q5 Chair: Should they not take a precautionary approach with something as important as drinking water?
Richard Aylard: We are not, with respect, talking about drinking water. We are talking about what goes into the environment. What we take from the environment is already treated to exceptionally high standards in this country, overseen by the Drinking Water Inspectorate. There are no concerns about human health.
Q6 Chair: Okay. What about the broader aquatic environment then?
Richard Aylard: As to the broader aquatic environment, I absolutely understand the precautionary approach, but, if it is then going to be turned into regulation, it needs to be done in a proportionate way. That is where we need to look very carefully at the cost and the benefit. We are talking about very significant costs to water customers over a sustained period. We think there should be more evidence that there is a real problem and then we can decide what we need to do to tackle it. At the moment we are talking about very high levels of expenditure. Our customers-your constituents-can only cope with paying for a certain amount of things in their water bills. We are suggesting at the moment that we want to do more to reduce things like sewer flooding of people’s homes and combined sewer overflow discharges to rivers. We cannot spend their money more than once. If we are going to spend a huge amount of money on dealing with this problem, it is potentially going to drive out investment on problems that are of a much higher and more obvious concern to constituents, as I say, such as sewer flooding and combined sewer overflow discharges of raw sewage to rivers, which are happening still far too often in this country and require additional expenditure. So it is a question of being proportionate and getting the priorities sorted out. At the moment, we do not think there is anything like enough evidence to show that this is a priority for spending customers’ money, particularly in the current economic climate.
Marco Lattughi: I agree with your points. There has to be proportionate spending in terms of putting in treatment technology that would remove a very small amount of these contaminants-if at all in certain cases-to give a benefit to the public. We need to think, maybe, about what the pathways are of these chemicals entering the actual water treatment works and what their toxicological effects are. At the minute these EQSs that have been derived-these limits that we need to monitor to-have been derived from very conservative safety factors and a lot of the time are not coming from true tox data. So they are just applying a factor of a thousand, times’ing it by a thousand and coming out with a magical number that is really not achievable.
Mike Murray: We would concur with those opinions as well. We believe that the precautionary principles should only be used with great caution, particularly when there are significant potential societal impacts from its application-and, in particular, in this case, in relation to the pharmaceutical compounds and their proposed control, the costs and potential societal impacts that this may have.
Q7 Roger Williams: As far as monitoring potential priority substances is concerned, at the moment this is done by a watchlist approach. What are the strengths and weaknesses of that approach?
Mike Murray: In terms of the watch list, that is a part of the proposal that has come forward from the Commission in the proposed amendment to the Water Framework Directive. In our view, it may have some merit because it would give you the opportunity to take a much more balanced approach to monitoring. As has been said by my colleague, for the two pharmaceutical substances and ethinyloestradiol in particular, there are issues about monitoring and being able to monitor accurately, and, also, because the proposed EQS is so low, it is way below the actual limits of detection at the moment. So there are issues around the validity of the data that the Commission has on monitoring at the moment; by its own admission, those are quite incomplete. There are only three member states, I think, that have reported on ethinyloestradiol and two on oestradiol, and they themselves are of limited value because of the limited detection issue. We believe the watch list would give an opportunity, as I say, for a more considered approach to monitoring and also give much more robust data, potentially, on the true occurrence of these compounds in the environment. I have to say that we do not actually know the details of the proposed mechanism for using the watch list or setting it up, how compounds would go on the watch list, and, equally importantly, how they may be taken off the watch list if monitoring shows up that they do not warrant any further attention. Also, there are issues around the analytical activities in terms of sampling, the reproducibility of analytical methods and so on, which would have to be looked at before one could come to a definitive opinion on the value or otherwise of that watch list.
Q8 Roger Williams: Would anyone like to add anything? Are there any other better ways of achieving this?
Marco Lattughi: The watch list is a good idea. We need to understand how, as my colleague said, to include or disinclude substances from the watch list and who is going to police it and monitor the effectiveness of the research.
Richard Aylard: We are very happy with the watch list in principle. It does make sense, provided we have a very clear process, an understanding of how exactly it is going to work and what is going to be looked at, by whom, over what period, and then what happens afterwards. Provided all that is spelled out, then, yes, of course, a watch list is a very sensible step to take-to be looking at substances that are of potential concern and establishing just how big the concern is, what can be done about it, what the levels should be and what further work might be required.
Q9 Roger Williams: Richard and Marco, in your written evidence you say that some chemicals are being monitored or regulated below a level at which they can be detected. Can you give us some examples of that?
Marco Lattughi: Yes. We have been undertaking quite a bit of work on behalf of the water companies looking at the chemicals investigation programme currently. To take an example, if we look at brominated fire retardants, we are probably hitting a detection limit of 0.0005 micrograms per litre. The proposed change to some of these similar compounds is now 4.99 times 10 to the minus 8, which takes us into 10,000 times below that level. The worry from my point of view is that, if we are struggling to see the current level, how we are going to reach those detection limits.
Q10 Roger Williams: Could you use more concentrated samples, though, for instance?
Marco Lattughi: Because we are looking at waste water in the treatment processes, there is a lot of background from dirt and matrix there, so by concentrating the substances we are concentrating the matrix already. So we do not gain much by concentration factors. There is a lot of cleanup involved.
Richard Aylard: I would agree with Marco. It is his members who do this work on our behalf, so I defer to his expertise.
Q11 Roger Williams: On the general point, I am told by some people I meet in the agrochemical industry, for instance, that the number of compounds they can take forward is very limited because they have to demonstrate that they have below a certain amount in an Olympicsized swimming pool, for instance. Is this part of a culture that we are building up-that we are taking too much interest in these chemicals that appear at very low levels?
Marco Lattughi: There is definitely a public concern about eating and drinking certain chemicals, which is perhaps a bit skewed in the press as well. Yes, we need to take it in context and back it up with scientific data. If we can prove that there is not an issue, why regulate? But I think, at the minute, as we are all agreeing, there is very little evidence at these kinds of levels that there is an effect.
Q12 Stephen Metcalfe: Mr Aylard, you said that there were huge costs involved in potentially imposing this new level of treatment. Could you expand on that and tell us what you think those costs would be? I know you have told us that it would be £100 a year, but for how long and would that be indefinitely? What would actually be involved? What would the money be used to do?
Richard Aylard: We have looked in detail at what would be required to deal with the two oestrogens-the naturallyoccurring E2 and the artificial EE2. The cost there would be between £27 billion and £31 billion over 20 years. That would translate into a bill impact of something like £100 a year on people’s wastewater bills, so it would virtually be a doubling of the current wastewater bill. That does not include financing costs, nor does it include energy. That is a conservative estimate of the cost. It is based on removing those products from waste water, bearing it in mind that they are already being taken out by the drinking water treatment process. To take them out of waste water-when they go into the environment rather than when they come out-you would have to use processes that you normally use for treating drinking water on your sewage effluent.
There are two processes in particular. One is ozonation, which is an advanced oxidation process. The other one would be the use of granular activated carbon, which adsorbs these substances on to the carbon, which then gets regenerated periodically. You would have to be filtering your effluent through this granular activated carbon and also applying ozone. Both of those are energyintensive processes, take a lot of space and would add very significantly to the costs of treating the waste water. You would treat the waste water to its normal standard and then, basically, put it through virtually a full drinking water standard process, other than adding a dash of chlorine, which, of course, we do to keep water safe while it is going through the pipes. Doing that would not reduce your drinking water treatment costs because there are other substances that get into the environment from agricultural runoff, for instance, which require the same processes when you get to drinking water treatment. You would be applying your granular activated carbon and your ozonation twice-once at the sewage works, when we put it into the environment, and then again, when we take it out, to treat for drinking water. So you are adding this huge additional cost to your sewage treatment.
At Thames Water we run 350 sewage works. I do not know what the total number across the UK industry is, but it would be well over a thousand. Each of those works is going to have to have this level of treatment, bearing in mind that these oestrogens are being produced by everybody as they use the toilet. Every sewage works is going to have to have removal facilities to take this stuff out. Yet, at the moment, we do not even know it is causing a particular problem. We want to find out whether that is justified, because it is a huge change to the way we operate, a huge cost to customers and it also would produce very much greater carbon emissions. It would increase our carbon emissions from wastewater treatment by a third. Bearing it in mind that we have been working hard to get our carbon emissions down, the last thing we want to be doing is putting in that additional environmental disbenefit to achieve a questionable requirement.
Q13 Stephen Metcalfe: Thank you. We have had some evidence submitted to us from a Swiss study that says that the additional costs could be only in the range of 5% to 10% over and above traditional, conventional treatment. Why is the cost so much greater here in the UK?
Richard Aylard: In Switzerland they have a great deal more water and far fewer people, so the dilution factor is much greater. We do not think those costs are right, but, as I say, the situation is different in Switzerland. The other thing is that the Swiss study talked about getting levels down by 80%. What is being talked about by the EU is getting them down by approximately 99.999%. So we are not comparing apples with apples here. These are very different situations. They have not been looking at the situation from the point of view of what we would be required to do under these new directives in the UK with our very concentrated population.
Q14 Stephen Metcalfe: It is not that our current treatment works are behind the times.
Richard Aylard: Not at all, no.
Q15 Stephen Metcalfe: It is totally different. We are not comparing like for like.
Richard Aylard: We are not, either in the situation in terms of population and dilution factor or in the levels to which we would be required to reduce these substances.
Q16 Stephen Metcalfe: If this were to be done over a longer period of time, and presumably you have a programme of upgrading works-
Richard Aylard: Absolutely.
Stephen Metcalfe: -is there an interim or a less stringent regime that you could introduce as you were upgrading these works that would balance the cost against the environmental benefits?
Richard Aylard: Sewage works, by their nature, do not require upgrading very often. It is a very basic biological process. You apply oxygen and bacteria, and the process takes its course. If you are going to upgrade a works, it would tend to be about reducing the footprint, reducing the energy requirement or improving the quality of the effluent coming out. But to do what is being talked about now would still require a very large additional process on the end of the works. Clearly, if you could do it as works were upgraded, that would have some reduction in costs because you would be doing work on the site anyway, but most of the expenditure would still be required; it would not be a very significant saving.
Marco Lattughi: From my chemical background, I would be concerned that we are now targeting maybe another five chemicals, in particular the oestrogens and one or two chemicals. There is still a lot of research ongoing into what other chemicals are there. We could be putting a lot of money into a treatment process that will catch maybe one or two of the chemicals, but, in future, you may find that you have problems with other chemicals going through the system. We are very much at the early stage of understanding what is going through the water treatment process. I do not think we are in a position to spend a lot of money just on one chemical. We should really be thinking about research, seeing what other chemicals are there and what future technologies could trap or destroy most of these chemicals going through the process rather than just one or two.
Richard Aylard: I agree.
Mike Murray: I would concur with those views. To target two specific compounds, particularly as we do not believe the evidence is there to justify their inclusion, is invidious at this point in time. We believe that a much more holistic approach needs to be taken to control rather than doing it through targeting individual compounds on incomplete and, we believe, inadequate evidence.
Q17 David Morris: People tend to dispose of pharmaceuticals through the system. How much of an impact would better labelling of pharmaceutical products, for example with clearer disposal instructions, have on controlling these substances at source? Where should the balance between source control and endofpipe treatment lie?
Mike Murray: In terms of unused medicines, we support the concept of takeback schemes for medicines to pharmacies or, in other member states, having other disposal schemes for unused medicines. But one has to be realistic in that the contribution of unused medicines to the overall environmental load of pharmaceutical compounds is, we believe, not very high. It is very difficult to get an absolute figure because there is a lot of confusion or lack of evidence about the actual true wastage of medicines, whether it is 5%, 10% or whatever. People have been trying to make accurate estimates of the wastage rate of medicines in general. Of that, only a proportion will actually go into the environment through improper disposal and so on.
In terms of overall impact, we do not believe it would make a significant contribution to reducing the overall burden of pharmaceuticals in the environment. That is not to say we do not support the concept of the schemes, and member states are required to have some kind of disposal scheme for medicines under the medicines legislation. Through our European Federation of Pharmaceutical Industries we did a survey in 2007 of the current schemes in operation. They were quite variable in whether they were there in individual member states and some of them had not actually implemented them at that stage. Also, they were variable in the approaches taken and the level of application. We are intending to do a review of that study maybe sometime later on this year to try and see how things have changed in the interim five or six years. By far the biggest contributor of pharmaceuticals in the environment is via the patient and medicinal use.
Q18 David Tredinnick: What role does innovation play in helping to meet the environmental quality standards set by the priority substances directives?
Marco Lattughi: I would say over the last five to 10 years we have come on in leaps and bounds as far as detection limits and technology are concerned. We are getting an everdiminishing return now at the levels we are looking at, so, without some incredible discovery in new technology, we would be struggling to hit these EQSs. Typically, we are improving sensitivities over two to three years maybe fivefold or tenfold, but we are talking ten-thousandfold here.
Q19 David Tredinnick: Is that because of better technology?
Marco Lattughi: The technology has improved a lot, but we are still way off hitting some of these limits that have been or are proposed to be set. In terms of capacity within the industry, there is a distinct lack of instrumentation out there to do the work, on a large scale as well.
Q20 David Tredinnick: That is something that is a major issue for you, is it?
Marco Lattughi: Yes.
Q21 David Tredinnick: It is something the Government should consider.
Marco Lattughi: Potentially.
Q22 David Tredinnick: Moving on, unless any of your colleagues want to add anything, we have heard that the Scottish water industry has a "more proinnovation culture"-I am not sure about the grammar there-partly due to its different ownership model. Are you putting profits before technological development?
Richard Aylard: I had better answer that one, hadn’t I? I thought Marco was going to. No, we are not putting profits ahead of technological innovation. The regulatory system gives us lots of incentive to innovate. If we can achieve the regulatory outcomes that we sign up to more cheaply, then we get to keep the benefit for the first five years. Afterwards, that gets recognised in price limits, so customers benefit. The system does have lots of incentive there for us to innovate.
For instance, we built the UK’s first blackwater treatment plant on the Olympic park, taking sewage from the Northern Outfall Sewer and treating it to a standard that was sufficient to water the Olympic park. In the distant days, when it looked as though we were going to have a drought summer last year, that made a big difference to the prospects for the Olympic park. We have just built and opened the world’s first advanced fourstage desalination plant to provide water for London in the event of a drought, and there are lots more examples of situations where the company is innovating to achieve the outcomes in the most efficient way. Indeed, the regulatory system is set up to encourage us to do that for our and our customers’ benefits.
Q23 David Tredinnick: That would include developing innovative solutions to challenges such as the priority substances list, would it?
Richard Aylard: Yes, it would. When we know what standards we are required to achieve, if any, if the evidence is sufficient to justify it, and if this gets passed into law, then we will be working very closely with the environmental industries in this country to find the cheapest and most efficient way of achieving the required standards. As Marco was pointing out, if you cannot even detect the substances at the standards you are trying to achieve, it makes life very difficult.
Q24 David Tredinnick: I have a couple of questions about the quality of water itself. You talked about your work at the Olympic park and the black water there. In fact, that was one of the most polluted sites in Europe-I think I am right in saying-with all the canals there that had to be cleansed before the park could be developed. Do you ever look at the mineral content in water? We have a fortune spent on bottled water now-some would say unnecessarily. Do you actually look at the mineral content of your sources and put any value on them?
Richard Aylard: We certainly look at the mineral content of our sources, because in some cases we need to blend the water to get the best outcome for customers in terms of taste and hardness and so on. So, yes, we do look at the mineral content. There are some people who would like to see us provide softer water to customers, and it is technically possible that we could invest in providing soft water. But soft water is less good for the human body than hard water and many people also think hard water tastes better, so it is not something we are proposing to do because customers, if they want to, can soften water in their own homes.
Q25 David Tredinnick: I was not thinking so much of the softening but of the actual quality because of the mineral traces that are in the water. I have one other question building on that. I recall seeing some Japanese research a few years ago about the molecular structure of water itself if you look at it under a microscope. If the water comes from a source that is questionable, although clean, the structure appears to be like little circles, little balls, but if it is of a very high quality-perhaps from a very pure source-then it looks like snowflakes. Have you, as part of your innovative work, had a chance to look at any of that research?
Richard Aylard: I have looked at that research and it is very interesting. I have also talked to the technical experts and nobody is able to explain why those results come out the way they do. What we do is comply with the very high standards set by the Drinking Water Inspectorate. I am unable to explain the Japanese research and I do not think anybody else has been able to either.
Q26 David Tredinnick: It is interesting, though isn’t it-
Richard Aylard: It is interesting.
David Tredinnick: -that one slide will show water that you instinctively know does not look very nice, whereas the other has these beautiful patterns of snowflakes? There must be something there, don’t you think?
Richard Aylard: I am a biologist and not a chemist, but I have read that research, looked at the photographs, like you, and it is impressive-but I do not understand and nor, I think, does anybody else.
Marco Lattughi: I do not understand either at the present time, so I cannot comment on that.
Q27 David Tredinnick: Very often science does not understand things one moment and then a few years later discovers a solution.
Marco Lattughi: Absolutely.
Q28 Stephen Mosley: I was interested in the answer you gave to Stephen Metcalfe about the Swiss experiment that has been done. Is it easier to treat water in some areas than others? Is it easier to produce cleaner water, and what are the factors behind that?
Richard Aylard: If we are talking about drinking water, we will provide the same standard of drinking water to all our customers, but how much it costs us and how complicated it is to achieve that outcome depends very much on where the water is abstracted from. If we are taking water out of a chalk aquifer somewhere out in the Kennett valley, for instance, we are getting very high quality, naturallyfiltered water. It is almost the same as bottled water, except it is fresher. All we have to do is give it a bit of a tidy-up, put a dash of chlorine in and it is ready to go to the customers’ taps. That is a relatively cheap source of water. If we are abstracting water from the River Thames when it has been in flood, it will have some agrochemicals in it, so that requires more treatment. If we are abstracting ground water from under London, where it has been filtering through fairly contaminated soil for many years, it requires a lot more cleaning up. But in each case we achieve the same standard at the end, which is good quality, potable drinking water.
Q29 Stephen Mosley: What about in terms of sewage?
Richard Aylard: In terms of sewage, the same factors apply. If you have a very small rural sewage treatment works, which has perhaps quite lot of groundwater infiltration into it, what is coming into the works is relatively dilute and your problem there is dealing with volume. If you are dealing with a very concentrated catchment-lots of people living very close together-and we are talking about a hot dry summer and there is not much water in the system, then you have a much more concentrated effluent to treat. But it is the same principle. You have to give it bugs, oxygen and time, and you get the same output. The sewage works is configured to cope with the population size that it is built for.
Q30 Stephen Mosley: We have seen some evidence that England and, I think, Belgium as well would be the most exposed to the problems that we face in terms of cleaning the sewage water. Is there any truth in that, and, if so, why would that be?
Richard Aylard: I cannot comment on Belgium. As far as the UK is concerned, we have-I would say this, wouldn’t I?-a pretty advanced wastewater industry. We only have 10 wastewater companies across the whole country, whereas across Europe it is often left to individual municipalities to apply their own standards. So they are not working at the same kind of scale that we are working at. The other issue for the UK is that we have a high density population, and that means that, if we are talking about substances like E2, which are excreted in urine, then we get a lot of it to deal with and in a relatively small area, as opposed to, for instance, Switzerland, where, as I was saying, they have much more water and far fewer people. Those are the factors that I can pick up on. I do not know if Marco has any other suggestions.
Marco Lattughi: It all depends on the industry, the sources, which will vary from country to country, and the actual climate, which plays a big part in it as far as the dilution and concentration effects are concerned. So there is a whole host of different parameters that influence that.
Q31 Stephen Mosley: Okay. We have seen that EUREAU-which is the European trade body, essentially-has welcomed the proposals. Do the water industries across Europe have the same objections as the UK?
Richard Aylard: I would have to write to you about that. I need to find out.
Marco Lattughi: I cannot comment on that.
Q32 Roger Williams: I hope you can speak freely on this matter and tell us how effective the Government have been in looking after the interests of the UK citizens and industry as far as the priority substance directive is concerned.
Richard Aylard: I think they have been very effective. We will wait and see. The proof of the pudding will be what the final outcome is, but certainly the Minister has been making very clear what the concerns are, using evidence that we and other companies have supplied. The Hazardous Substances Advisory Committee has made it clear that it is not convinced by the arguments, and we have also been talking to MEPs, trying to get the message across that at the moment there is not justification for doing this and that the costs are going to be too high for customers. But, yes, it looks to us as though the Government have been pushing this effectively. I do not know if anybody wants to add to that.
Marco Lattughi: I agree with that; I concur.
Mike Murray: I totally agree. We believe that the UK Government have taken a scientific and rational approach to this and perhaps have, more than anybody else, recognised that there are significant implications of these proposals, which are, in our view, as we have said before, based on insufficient evidence at this point in time.
Q33 Roger Williams: I remember some years ago meeting Welsh Water, who were then telling me about the great work they were doing getting manganese and the peaty colour out of their water to meet their customers’ requirements and probably the regulatory requirements. Are we just chasing our tails all the time by going after yet another thing to take out of water when in fact we have a very good product anyway?
Marco Lattughi: In terms of the chemistry, over the years we have produced a lot of products using various amounts of chemicals and we still do not understand what is going into the water supply. As more products are developed, there is more potential for unwanted chemicals to enter the water supply. So things have changed slightly in terms of the number of chemicals entering our water, and we are lacking in research needed to keep up to speed with some of the stuff that enters our water system. But, until we understand what is happening, it is difficult for us to treat it.
Q34 Chair: Going back to your comments about the different structures in other countries, do I imply from that that you believe the system we have with 10 large organisations operating in the UK is producing a better product for the customer?
Richard Aylard: I would be wary of saying that because I have not personally made a detailed study of the standards being achieved across Europe, but certainly in the UK we have a very coherent regulatory system, with the Environment Agency overseeing the standard of what goes into rivers. We have Ofwat looking very hard at the economic costs and making sure that companies can finance the functions that they need to do to deliver the environmental standards. Because you have 10 companies, you have efficiencies of scale. Particularly when you are dealing with large conurbations like London, Manchester and so on, it makes sense to have it all done by one company. Also, if you look at the Thames valley, for instance, we are operating both the rural sewage treatment works upstream and then abstracting that water again to treat for drinking water downstream, so we are very joined up and organised on a catchment basis, which must be the right way to do things so that you have the whole catchment within the control of one company. So, yes, I think that the 10 water and sewerage companies in this country is an efficient structure.
Q35 Chair: The purpose of my asking that is to try and tease out of you whether there is, in your judgment, a need for more rigorous controls in other countries. One still goes to other countries inside the EU where one is recommended not to drink the tap water, for example. I am not aware of anywhere in the UK where that prevails. Isn’t it clear that there is a need for a more rigorous set of standards?
Richard Aylard: We have very high standards in this country. That is what I know about and I don’t think I should be giving you evidence on things I do not know about.
Chair: That is fair enough.
Marco Lattughi: In terms of-just taking as an example-the chemicals investigation programme, we suffer from the fact that we implement the legislation very effectively in this country compared maybe with other member states. Looking at the amount of money that has been spent and some of these priority substances, we probably have done more than the rest of Europe purely from the fact that they don’t actually implement some of the technical aspects of the legislation. That is historical. So, yes, there is a-
Mike Murray: I do not feel sufficiently qualified to comment over and above what my colleagues have said, to be honest.
Q36 Chair: Yes, but, with your hat on for the organisation you represent, there are other areas where you would argue that, in keeping with what Mr Aylard said, we overly interpret regulations coming out of Europe,
Mike Murray: I would agree that certainly we are probably as assiduous as any other member state, if not better than most, in implementing EU legislation. I would agree with that, yes.
Chair: Okay. Thank you very much, gentlemen, for your contribution this morning. That has been extremely helpful to start us thinking. Thank you very much indeed.
Examination of Witnesses
Witnesses: Neil Runnalls, Centre for Ecology and Hydrology Business Development Manager, Natural Environment Research Council, Professor Andrew Johnson, Centre for Ecology and Hydrology, and Dr Rob Collins, Head of Policy, Rivers Trust, on behalf of the Blueprint for Water Coalition, gave evidence.
Q37 Chair: Good morning, gentlemen. Thank you very much for coming this morning. For the record, I would be grateful if you would introduce yourselves.
Neil Runnalls: My name is Neil Runnalls. I work for the Centre for Ecology and Hydrology, which is part of NERC. I am here representing Research Councils UK and their submissions, so that is both NERC and EPSRC, who have put some stuff together for you. My role has been, over the last 20 years or so, particularly to interface CEH with European activities on research in water. I am involved in representing the Research Councils on various EU bodies, where we are trying to increase coordination of European research, increase the effectiveness with which science is communicated into policy and where policy developments come back to influence what research is done. I describe myself as somebody who knows nothing about everything. So, on very detailed issues, I am going to turn to my colleague Andrew, who is a research scientist within CEH.
Professor Johnson: Good morning. My name is Professor Andrew Johnson. I also work at the Centre for Ecology and Hydrology. Our parent body is the Natural Environment Research Council, and the topic of chemicals in water has been one of my particular areas of research for over 15 years now.
Dr Collins: Good morning. I am Dr Rob Collins. I work for the Rivers Trust, but I am here representing the Blueprint for Water, a coalition of environmental organisations. I am a former employee of the Centre for Ecology and Hydrology-many years ago.
Q38 Chair: Thank you very much. Can I start off where I started with the previous panel? Should the 15 chemicals proposed by the EU be added to the priority substances list?
Professor Johnson: Shall I start by responding to that? The formula with trying to assess whether chemicals are a hazard to our aquatic environment is quite well understood and normally follows a procedure of whether the chemical is persistent, will it linger in the environment, will it bioaccumulate, and is it toxic. This is a procedure that is well understood. Then there is also a review of whether the concentrations that might occur in the environment could be reached and, therefore, that chemical would come to the top of the list. What is new, as you have obviously recognised, is the addition of three pharmaceuticaltype compounds, which have different properties. Particularly the issue is around the consensus, or lack of it, of their toxicity to wildlife. That is where the area is somewhat more controversial.
Dr Collins: We do support the listing of these chemicals. We believe it will give greater protection to the health of our freshwater and coastal ecosystems. We also see it as driving a more sustainable management of our water resources and use of chemicals. It is not uncommon, for example, for chemicals to be discharged into a river from a wastewater treatment plant and at some point downstream those chemicals to be polluting a raw drinking water source and requiring treatment before that water can be supplied to our tap. We feel this legislation would help to drive a more efficient and perhaps intelligent way of managing the whole system.
Q39 Chair: Professor Johnson, you did not quite answer the question: should those substances be added to the list?
Professor Johnson: I would say that the majority of those chemicals-the pesticides, the biocidal products and the combustion products-are all very reasonable chemicals to add on to the list. The three pharmaceuticalbased chemicals, I think, have perhaps caught us out a little bit flat-footed because the degree of evidence of effects that those chemicals might have is still not as complete as we would like. As a scientist, I welcome the focus that these chemicals are getting, but the weight of evidence that we have is not yet sufficient perhaps, for many people, to put them top of the list. As a scientist, I would say it is an area where more research is needed; that is perhaps my best answer on those three.
Dr Collins: We would also support that comment. Clearly, there is controversy around these three particular substances and we would certainly push for more research there in order to reduce the uncertainty around their quality standards.
Q40 Chair: In that sense, you agree with the previous panel, who was saying that the scientific evidence from the European Commission is not sufficiently robust yet. They are saying, on the one hand, that the substances should not be added to the list and you are saying they should. You are taking a more precautionary approach.
Dr Collins: I think we are. I suppose our concern is that, if they disappear from the list, there is a strong potential for no action to be taken and the whole process stops here and now. We would like to see further research undertaken. It appears to be necessary with some of the ecotoxological evidence-it is limited-and we want to see that process taken forward.
Professor Johnson: Would you like me to add a little on the evidence for why these chemicals are considered harmful?
Chair: Yes, please.
Professor Johnson: As to the ethinyloestradiol, the oestradiol is undoubtedly having effects on wildlife-on fish. The question is to what degree we consider those effects particularly harmful. The issue with the oestrogens is reducing the fertility of male fish. There is no argument that these chemicals at the sort of concentrations one might find in the environment will be having that effect. The more difficult question is: are these effects which are not toxic? That is why this issue is a difficult one to deal with. Are these effects sufficiently grievous to imperil the populations of fish?
We have been discharging these sorts of chemicals into our rivers for decades, and the fish populations are still largely there. So we are in a difficult situation. The effects that we see in wildlife in fish are something we would not certainly accept in humans. These are genuine effects that are happening. The question is: is it going to cause a very significant disaster for the fish populations? This is where the jury is a little bit out. It is not fair to say that the chemicals are not having an effect on wildlife, but it is our judgment on what the severity of that effect is.
Chair: Thank you. That is very helpful.
Q41 David Tredinnick: What risk is there that the Commission’s proposals will restrict the access of patients to pharmaceuticals on the priority substances list?
Professor Johnson: I do not believe there is a risk. It has been viewed-and I am sure it will continue to be viewed-that societal benefit of pharmaceuticals trumps other considerations. Of course, ideally, we would like, if we could, to choose other pharmaceuticals that may be less harmful for our natural environment, but usually we do not have that option. If we were to be forced to deal with chemicals such as pharmaceuticals, I am sure the approach would be to deal with treatment at wastewater treatment plants rather than restricting access to patients.
Q42 David Tredinnick: Can better drug disposal initiatives achieve similar results to improve wastewater treatment technology?
Professor Johnson: Regarding the sensible use of drugs in the home, I am sure everything would help, but we are in a spot where the overwhelming discharge to the environment is just from the excretion from the patients. That would be the largest source. We do not have that much room for manoeuvre in terms of the problem we are facing with chemicals such as pharmaceuticals arriving in our rivers.
Q43 David Tredinnick: Where should the balance be between source control and endofpipe treatment?
Professor Johnson: It would be lovely if we had a plethora of pharmaceuticals we could choose from to reduce our dependence on pharmaceuticals that we may consider harmful, but we are not in that position for reasons I am sure you know, with the difficulty in developing sensible pharmaceuticals that do not harm us. The balance with these three chemicals almost certainly will be focused largely on improving our wastewater treatment.
Q44 David Tredinnick: Are there other lowcarbon ways of improving water quality?
Professor Johnson: As you have heard from the previous speakers, currently we rely largely on biological treatment of our waste water in which we are encouraging bacteria, with lots of oxygen, to break down these compounds, and they largely do this. Most of the pharmaceuticals are largely broken down already in wastewater treatment. If your questions are, "Could we improve biological treatment? Is there room for manoeuvre to develop lowercost ways of removing these compounds?", I suspect there is some room for further development of biological treatment-low carbon, if you like. But, if you were to say we need to remove these chemicals tomorrow, we would have to go straight to these very expensive, highly energyconsuming approaches.
Dr Collins: We do not have a great area of expertise here, but we understand that there are less intensive techniques such as reed beds and constructed wetlands, which have shown some potential for removing some of the chemicals that we have been talking about. I think the recent UK water industry research programme into chemicals has shown, plus other studies too, that there is potential there, and, as we understand it, those techniques are less carbon-intensive and also cheaper.
Q45 Roger Williams: We are receiving some evidence that it appears the UK may be facing greater challenges as far as the proposal for water quality is concerned. Professor Johnson, do you agree with that, and, if so, why is that?
Professor Johnson: Yes. The reason why I would indicate that the UK-and more specifically England-is facing the sternest challenge in trying to deal with these chemicals is due to the nature of our island, which is very densely populated and we have a very little amount of water to dilute our waste. This is different from citizens in many parts of Europe. France, Switzerland and Denmark all have an enormous amount of room for manoeuvre in the amount of dilution they have available. This issue of trying to deal with the pharmaceuticals has thrown that into sharp relief. We have very little room for manoeuvre with the amount of water we have to dilute our waste. If I could give you an example, in a dry summer the River Thames out there-slightly higher up the river, near where we work in Reading-could be between a quarter treated sewage effluent to a third. That shows you how careful we have to be with the chemicals that we discharge into our waterways.
Q46 Roger Williams: Within England itself, would there be specific water authorities that would face particular challenges?
Neil Runnalls: I think we have put in a little map somewhere in our submission. It is basically a swathe of country that runs from London up through, you could say, to Manchester, where there is high density population and lowflow rivers.
Q47 Roger Williams: That would be Thames, Anglian and Severn Trent.
Neil Runnalls: Yes, that is right.
Professor Johnson: These would be the main hotspots where-I am sure you can understand yourself-we have a lot of population and not so much rainfall. As you start to drift towards, fortunately, people who live in Wales or Scotland, you are blessed with more rainfall. So the weight of the costs would fall more disproportionately on those drier parts of the country.
Q48 Roger Williams: The environment has some effect on that in the sense of different weather regimes.
Professor Johnson: Absolutely.
Q49 Roger Williams: Would the actual source of the water also have some effect on how chemically polluted or prone to chemical pollution it may be?
Professor Johnson: We are talking about rainfall. Rainfall is the same throughout the country. It is a case of how much resource we have available to use that rainfall, so it can be two or three times more rainfall as we go towards the north and west. Over here, where we are sitting in the Thames region, we have a very low rainfall, so, as you have heard, we are recycling that water as it goes down the Thames.
Q50 Roger Williams: The actual water source is not a key issue here. It is the weather or the climatic conditions at the source.
Professor Johnson: Yes. If, for example, a lot of your water source is, shall we say, ground water that was laid down from the last ice age, you start with a fairly good basis. Where you rely more and more on rain water-so it is very recent runoff-that is also the area, if you are taking the water from rivers, where your sewage effluent is going.
Q51 Stephen Mosley: Professor Johnson, I know that in the Centre for Ecology and Hydrology evidence you say that there is a constraint on investment in innovation within English companies because of their financial model, where their returns are based on how much they invest in infrastructure basically-probably lowrisk infrastructure. Do they invest less in innovation?
Neil Runnalls: The Government have had a number of reviews in the last five years into the problem of lack of innovation in the water sector. There have been several of them. There have been some changes introduced, and some of those things were just mentioned to you by some of the chaps on the previous panel. It remains to be seen to what extent those changes, which have been introduced, have had an effect on the water companies’ ability to offset their research against their profits. Previously, 10 years ago, water companies were almost penalised for doing research and they could not offset their investment in research, so it was a great disincentive. Things have improved, but, in the very nature of things, the way the companies are structured does restrict how much innovation is needed. That was particularly the case when so much of their financial returns depended upon capital expenditure. That is where their charging came through and a new regime for allowing a total expenditure perspective is a bit of a game changer, but, as to how much, we do not really know yet. There is a lot more activity in innovation, but there could possibly be more.
Q52 Stephen Mosley: But isn’t the problem we are looking at, at the moment-with pharmaceuticals, oestrogen and so on going into the water-a known problem with a known solution? Isn’t that a capital project rather than an innovationtype project that needs a solution?
Professor Johnson: It depends on which way you want to take it. As I mentioned earlier, if we wanted to solve the problem tomorrow, there are a number of drinking waterstyle approaches that one might use that consume a lot of energy, but we use them happily for our drinking water. Given time, we might be able to develop removal techniques that would be adequate or sufficient to remove these chemicals without perhaps being as energy-consuming and such a high burden as the techniques we might use off the shelf today. This might drive innovation if we have a sufficient leadin time, which may reduce the costs.
Q53 Stephen Mosley: We have also heard that in Scotland and Wales there is more of a proinnovation culture within the water industry. Is that true, and, if so, why?
Neil Runnalls: The Scottish Government have introduced this Scottish perspective, what they call "hydro nation", which is basically to try to put water as a key asset for the country, a key expertise for it to sell on global markets. That is basically owned from the First Minister all the way down and is being implemented across all Departments. Within that, you have Scottish Water bolstered by the research sector, bolstered by Government Departments. We do not see that in England. We see a similar kind of thing happening in Wales, where there is a lot more joinup with Welsh Water-what was Welsh EA-as it now merges across, as they bring a lot of their Departments together. In Wales, they take a lot more of a sustainability perspective about their water. The Scottish one seems to be a lot more entrepreneurial, looking at global markets and Scotland’s unique assets in that respect. Slightly different ownership models allow them to do that.
Can I come back to that? The water companies are caught between a rock and a hard place. We have the Climate Change Act, which is requiring them to bring their carbon footprints down, and the Water Framework Directive, which is causing them to drive up their carbon usage, their energy usage, to get better quality water. That is a very uncomfortable place to be in.
I think, coming back to one of your questions about other ways of getting better water quality, some of the water companies are trying to attack the problems of water quality generally through what they call catchment management, which is trying to reduce the inflow of pesticides and sediment, and reduce their water treatment costs that way with low carbon techniques. In this current AMP round, Ofwat is allowing 100 pilots to be run by the water companies to test these catchment management approaches. So that is a bit of creativity, but there are some more creative water companies and some that are maybe not quite so creative.
Dr Collins: One or two on that catchment management issue have had work under way for some years now, very successfully bringing down water treatment costs by engaging with farmers who have been polluting raw water sources.
Q54 Stephen Mosley: As the UK Government, what can we do to make sure that these good examples are spread across the whole industry?
Neil Runnalls: What I see, as I work internationally, is some countries that have, as it were, got their water act together. The Netherlands is one in particular. Obviously, if they cannot manage water, then they basically disappear under the sea, and they have a huge tradition in such management.
As to the greater coordination at national level, when I have to go into Europe and have representatives of the water companies or DEFRA with me, we are being shredded when we come to having to represent the UK against the much more integrated war machines of the Dutch, the Germans and the French as they organise in the way that Scotland has grasped this "hydro nation" concept. These are the things we are seeing. We have a Danish Water Forum and a Swedish Water House, where Government, industry and academia are all working together to improve sustainability nationally and to take advantage of global opportunities in water. That is one of the things we could do.
The Government Chief Scientific Adviser, John Beddington, in his term of office, whatever it is you call it, has said that the big issue globally-the biggest threat for this country-is water, food and energy. That has been his little mantra, and he has set up this UK Water Research and Innovation Partnership to try to bring things together. The biggest problem for that grouping is lack of political support for the imperative of water. This little issue-the tiny issue of these water quality things here-is a small manifestation that our water systems are under huge pressure, be they floods or droughts. The UK, using a civil war illustration, is kind of like cavaliers fighting a New Model Army. Other countries have got themselves organised and we are having a jolly old time.
Professor Johnson: We would welcome certainly the interest that the Select Committee has shown, and all of us in the research sector would welcome a more strategic joinedup approach, because, although these pharmaceuticals and this issue may appear to have come out of the blue, there is no doubt about it that the UK, and England in particular, are in a very tight spot with the lack of water we have available to dilute our waste, with our use of chemicals and possibly with some rivers becoming drier and less able to dilute our waste in the future.
Dr Collins: I would add to that-it is speculation, but it is very likely-that other chemicals will be designated as priority substances in the future. There are a number of socalled emerging substances of concern, and it is very likely that some of those will end up on the list. In the longer term, it is perhaps not just two or three chemicals that we are talking about. It is a much wider issue than that.
Q55 Stephen Metcalfe: You have presented a very balanced approach here saying that, given time and with some innovation, we could balance the benefits of adopting these proposals by reducing the cost. However, if these proposals were adopted sooner rather than later, Thames Water have told us that it would cost somewhere between £27 billion and £31 billion to change their treatment works to accommodate this, and that is a conservative estimate. First, do you agree with that figure, and do you think that the £100 per year on people’s bills is a price worth paying for the benefits that would be gained?
Neil Runnalls: I think the estimate of one of our scientists who was involved in modelling the water treatment plants where the problems were was, "Okay, yes; that is about the right kind of number. Those are the numbers of water treatment plants you are going to have to deal with, so you are probably in the ball park there." The extent to which you can play is maybe whether you say, selectively, we are only going to require some of these, but, again, things are so tight that you might as well say, "Fair enough."
Professor Johnson: I would add to that my suspicion that these costs are still somewhat preliminary, in which you take your most successful but most expensive treatment on the one hand, look at all the likely candidates on the other and put the two numbers together. I would suspect that, over time, the number would be refined when you look on a casebycase basis as to whether you do not need to use such a high technology in such a high location because you have slightly more dilution. I suspect there will be some chance to refine those numbers down. We have to admit that, even with refinement and further review of those costs, we would still be facing a very substantial amount of investment, with constant funding required. But perhaps it is unwise to see these improvements of sewage treatment technology as just removing those chemicals, as Rob has mentioned. They could be removing a wide range of other pollutants that could be coming down the track in the future. So there is an argument that it could be a wiser investment long term.
Q56 Stephen Metcalfe: So it would set us up for the future; it would give us some futureproof technology that would enable us to meet new challenges coming down the line, potentially, in the future.
Professor Johnson: Yes. I do not think this issue is going to go away. It is likely that we and this Committee will be back here in five or 10 years with more chemicals and be in the same jam we are in now.
Q57 Stephen Metcalfe: NERC’s written evidence said that the costs might not be as high as had been proposed. You are slightly at odds with that.
Neil Runnalls: That is all right. That was written in Swindon, I think.
Stephen Metcalfe: That would explain it.
Neil Runnalls: The thinking behind that-coming out of the EPSRC-was that they could probably not do the full treatment in every place.
Q58 Stephen Metcalfe: Okay. Finally, Dr Collins, your written evidence outlined the Swiss approach to this. Obviously, Thames Water said you were not comparing like with like. Is that a fair comment on their part, or do you think there is a balance to be struck?
Dr Collins: I am not sure I can fully comment on that. I do not know the real details of the Swiss study. I understand that their cost estimates are somewhere around 17 Swiss francs per head of population for advance treatment across the country. It is speculation. As I understand things, Switzerland and a number of other countries in northern Europe-Denmark and Austria-have greater implementation of tertiary treatment anyway over and above the UK. As to whether that gains them lower cost, I am speculating and I do not know. I am not an expert on this.
Q59 Stephen Metcalfe: It could be that it is population density, lack of actual water resource-
Dr Collins: I totally accept-
Q60 Stephen Metcalfe: Actually what we need to say is, "If we are to adopt these, the costs are going to be as high as perhaps some of the estimates that are around at the moment, if we adopt them early."
Professor Johnson: Yes. I think the way of looking at it is that our costs will be among the highest in Europe.
Q61 Stephen Metcalfe: Fine, okay. Let us not pull back from that and try and mitigate that. Let us just talk about the benefits if this is worth doing and say it will give us some futureproof technology, hopefully.
Professor Johnson: Yes. But if we look further down the line-and again this may be an area of some controversy-if we were to convert our sewage effluent largely into effectively drinking water, it would change the balance of the ecosystem in the rivers. It would become more nutrient-poor, which might favour some species over others, like salmon or trout. Anglers might prefer that and coarse anglers may not, but that is something perhaps for further consideration. There is an issue here for the UK that we have to be absolutely focused on, if not now, for the future. This is not going to go away. There is a strong argument that this area does need further focus to see that there could be a lot of benefits for us coming down the line because we cannot get away from our lack of dilution problem.
Q62 David Tredinnick: I was slightly alarmed by your earlier remarks about the British being shredded by the Danish and Swedish in negotiations because the Government, academia and business are not working together properly. What have the Government been doing to engage with the Commission proposals in the EU, and do you think that the British Government are severely disadvantaged because of what you said earlier?
Neil Runnalls: At the level of specific discussions about these, there are mechanisms through what is called a Water Framework Directive common implementation strategy for regular dialogue on these issues on the priority of things. There will be UK Government, DEFRA and EA people on those committees-the working route of common implementation strategy-to discuss this. Where I am particularly working, which is in the research and innovation area, there are some major problems. The Commission has just launched a thing called the European Innovation Partnership on water-an EIP on water. There is only one UK representative on the two strategic boards, which has about 50 people on it, with better representation from Bulgaria.
Q63 David Tredinnick: Why is that? Is that because of a poor recognition in the Government? Is it a resources issue?
Neil Runnalls: It is a human resources problem in many respects in that both DEFRA and EA have had substantial cuts in their staffing. Their budgets have been cut and therefore their staff are under a lot of pressure.
Q64 David Tredinnick: Just because the staffing has been reorganised and there has been a change in strategy, it does not necessarily mean that these points cannot be covered on the board. So I put it to you that it is more to do with allocation of resources and effective use of them.
Neil Runnalls: That is right. I think they have to continue to meet all their obligations of all sorts with fewer people and therefore some things have to go.
Q65 David Tredinnick: But if we have one man trying to cover two key committees and the Bulgarians have a dozen-to use your own paraphrase-surely that is something that needs to be addressed immediately, isn’t it?
Neil Runnalls: Yes. That one man represents the trade association, British Water. There is a thing called the Joint Programming Initiative on water, which is for member state collaboration in water. I represent the UK there through NERC, and I think we have been able to get DEFRA and EA people along twice, and we are providing them with a feed of information, but they have to be very cautious with the resources they have. At various levels-and this is what John Beddington has been trying do-there is the need to get a little bit more joined up, and that has been very difficult for him because he really does not have the financial resources to grease the wheels. He has had to get money wherever he can and it has been very hard for him to get mobilisation.
Q66 David Tredinnick: Turning to another issue that has come up in this session, which is catchment management issues, do you think that much more should be done to look at the quality of water in different areas, that it should be valued on a scale of 1 to 10 and that we should be trying to bring more water from better catchment areas than those that are less favourable?
Dr Collins: It is very intensive to pump and to move water around. If you are moving from one catchment over a long distance to a poorer quality catchment, that is one issue to take into account. We would say it probably does not really address the bones of the problem. The issue at source should be tackled.
Q67 David Tredinnick: I would like to return to this. Shouldn’t we be looking at the actual quality of water? We touched in the previous session-I didn’t see if you were at the back or not-on the issue of minerals in water. We had a brief discussion about bottled water and why people go out and buy that. I think, Dr Collins, you came up with a catchment area where you have said it is the same as bottled water in terms of quality. Should we not be addressing this issue of the actual quality of clean water?
Professor Johnson: We have to be careful of what we are discussing here. Some areas are blessed in terms of having good quality water for drinking, which is easy to deal with and treat, as you heard earlier. Other areas, such as Thames, have limited resources and we have to treat river water, which has received a lot of our sewage effluent. I do not see any way round that easily. You could say, "Could we add more water to the Thames, perhaps diverting it from another large catchment to increase its dilution?" We may have to do that for water resource areas, but I am not quite sure we have quite understood the intent of your question.
Q68 David Tredinnick: In the earlier session I raised the Japanese studies, which showed that, under a microscope, the constitution of water was quite different, that some of it looked like little granules and others looked like interlocking snowflakes, which suggested, instinctively, that it was of a better quality because it had a finer structure. The previous panel were not able to comment other than the fact that they had seen the studies. Do you think this is an area that should be explored further?
Dr Collins: We monitor water quality quite extensively and intensively. Water companies themselves know the quality of the water and the Environment Agency does as well in our rivers, our ground water and our drinking water source areas. So, in that respect, we are probably not lacking in information. Of course we could always do more.
Q69 David Tredinnick: Finally, despite the costs of transportation of water, what is your view on the proposal to pipe water from Scotland to London?
Professor Johnson: We are talking about water quality issues this morning. There is another issue of just water as a resource. As you are aware, we came close to a drought situation, so those two things are slightly linked. It is one of those issues where we have to be very strategic and think about whether the water levels could decline still further in the future possibly due to climate change. I think it is wise to start planning now what those challenges might be. Channelling water-not necessarily from Scotland but possibly from the Severn or a similar river-as a way forward is one approach, or you start building bigger reservoirs in this area to use as a resource to increase the volume in the Thames as well, I do not know which is better on a cost or energy front. Perhaps Rob can answer.
Dr Collins: I cannot answer that, but what we probably need to exhaust first is managing demand for water-trying to reduce demand for water. In London and the southeast, I think we still use per capita quite a lot of water, and more can be done-we can be more efficient in our homes and industries-to address that. We believe a target of 15% to 20% reduction in water use is achievable through that approach. Whether that means you still need to look at the bigger picture with more reservoirs and so on I do not know, but we have not really begun to exhaust that management of the demand for water.
Neil Runnalls: I think it is about the demand and the supply thing. The Scottish pipeline idea is, I think, a bit of a long shot really. As an Australian, I am used to people pumping water hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of miles, but I am also used to far, far greater public awareness of the preciousness of water. There is some considerable way to go in this country for people to be aware that there are certain things they should have in their gardens and certain things in regard to homes. These changes are taking place in the UK, but there is considerably more scope.
One of the big things as far as human beings is concerned is that people do not know where their water is coming from., which is a problem in this country. There is no sense of ownership. People think it comes out of a tap. People seeing where it is actually coming from is one of the things that has had quite a big effect upon the Australian psyche about how they treat and value water. They know it comes from that catchment, they know the rivers are there and that those rivers are stressed. In Perth, where I come from, after the weather forecasts, there is a water quality bulletin every night on the TV.
Q70 Chair: Thank you very much. I have a final question, if I may. Since I worked in a laboratory, analytical techniques have moved on substantially and things that we simply could not measure are now routinely measured with enormous degrees of accuracy. Is it the case, therefore, that we should make the assumption that analytical techniques are going to continue to advance and, therefore, the costs of coming to decisions about some of these marginal arguments would be more attractive to the consumer? That is my first point. The second point is how much of an issue is the bioaccumulation of some of the suggested chemicals?
Professor Johnson: What is interesting with a lot of the pharmaceuticals such as some of the ones that are on this list proposed by the European Union is that they are not particularly bioaccumulative, but, because we discharge them every day from our sewage works, you have what is called a plume of pseudo-persistence, so they are always present even though they flow through the system and out to sea. Typically, we get more concerned-or we have done in the past-in toxicology with the more bioaccumulative chemicals, and you will be familiar with things around heavy metals such as lead, which can build up and cause toxic effects. As to some of those chemicals that are the more bioaccumulative ones, we perhaps have some opportunities to reduce those at source. We have not talked about them so much in the session this morning. The pharmaceuticals are less bioaccumulative but it is a source we really cannot easily turn off.
Regarding the question about detection levels and analytical chemistry, that certainly has improved considerably; so, in other words, it will throw up more chemicals as we go on. But there is no getting away from the fact that we are all using many more pharmaceuticals and we demand more pharmaceuticals every day. So these will be coming into the system. The question is how good our understanding is of the toxicology and the effects of those chemicals, particularly when these chemicals are not toxic. Is it an effect that would be very harmful? Is it one that the general public would accept as being particularly harmful and prompt them to demand change? One of the interesting things about Switzerland-as Neil has said about Australia-is that there is a big public consensus on the need to have good water quality and, therefore, the public accepted a need to pay more to improve the quality of their sewage effluent going into their rivers.
Chair: Thank you very much indeed for your time this morning. It has been extremely interesting.
Examination of Witnesses
Witnesses: Dr Sue Kinsey, Marine Litter Policy Officer, Marine Conservation Society, and Professor Richard Thompson, Plymouth University, gave evidence.
Q71 Chair: Good morning to you. Can I welcome you to our session? I would be grateful if, for the record, you would introduce yourselves.
Dr Kinsey: My name is Dr Sue Kinsey. I am a senior pollution policy officer with the Marine Conservation Society.
Professor Thompson: I am Professor Richard Thompson. I am a marine ecologist from Plymouth university.
Q72 Chair: I want to start off with something we have not touched on this morning about marine litter, particularly plastic waste. What effect does it have on the marine environment? We see pictures of the physical impact and so on, but presumably you have concerns that go more deeply than that. What action is being taken to reduce marine litter?
Dr Kinsey: In the Marine Conservation Society we have been monitoring litter around our coastlines for over 20 years. We do a yearly monitoring of litter. Unfortunately, in that time, we have noticed that litter levels are going up by leaps and bounds, especially plastic litter. Going down to the microplastics, we are also seeing lots more small plastic pieces. These are having a number of serious effects for wildlife. The macroplastics and macrolitter are causing entanglement and ingestion. That is very deleterious for them. There is also the problem of cleanup costs. We are spending millions of euros or pounds every year just cleaning up marine litter on our coastlines. There is the effect on the fishing community, who, if they are constantly fishing up litter, are having spoilt catches. Their nets are being cut and they are having to throw catches back. Following that, there is the possible effect on human health from sewagerelated debris that is landing on beaches. Again, there is the potential for microplastics, for toxins, to potentially bioaccumulate up the food chain, from the bottom of the food chain upwards to us-if you are sea-food consumers.
Professor Thompson: Sue has covered it pretty well. We did a review for the Convention on Biological Diversity last year of the numbers of species reported as entangled in or ingesting marine debris. Those encounters are predominantly plastic. We reported over 370 species worldwide, including some that are critically endangered. That is a substantial increase since the last time this matter was reviewed.
Q73 Graham Stringer: How abundant are microplastics in the marine environment?
Professor Thompson: In terms of microplastics-for the benefit of the Committee I will define those before I answer the question-we were the first to really use that term for very small fragments of plastic. At that time I was talking about truly microscopic pieces. Since then, NOAA, in the US, has broadened the definition to include anything less than 5 mm, which some would certainly consider not microscopic, as you can readily see it with the naked eye. The driver there was that they were interested in the effects of very small pieces that could be readily ingested and that the behaviour of those pieces might be slightly different from larger pieces, which would be more likely to result in entanglement. So there is some variation in the terminology for the definition, but, if we are talking about the NOAA definition of anything less than 5 mm, I could take you to locations in the UK where more than 10% by weight of the natural debris on the strand line was plastic. So it can be quite substantial. But if we look at the smaller fraction-
Q74 Graham Stringer: But not necessarily microplastics.
Professor Thompson: How small do you want to go? Talking about less than 5 mm, you could quantify as much as 10%. If we are going to bits that I would consider truly microscopic-submillimetres pieces-then you would be looking at quantities in the region of up to 20 particles per litre of sand. Perhaps in terms of items in the water column, it would be less than one item per cubic metre typically, but then in hotspots, where there has been some sport of spillage, quantities in excess of 100,000 particles per metre cubed have been reported. So it is quite variable.
Q75 Graham Stringer: What is the main source? Is it the cosmetics industry or is it other parts of the industry?
Dr Kinsey: There is a variety of sources. The microplastics can come from larger articles that are breaking down into ever smaller pieces. Then there are the plastic particles that come from the plastics industry themselves-the raw product of all plastic products. They are shipped around the world in these little plastic pellets and are very easily spilled, and we find lots of them on the beaches. Then there are the cosmetics additives that people put into cosmetics for facial scrubbers and things like that. Also, plastic particles are coming off our own clothes through washing machines and down our sewers. Those kinds of plastic particles and the cosmetics particles are not screened out by the wastewater treatment sewage plants because they are simply not built to screen out those types of particles.
Q76 Graham Stringer: Could they be built to screen out those kinds of particles? Let me see if I can put a bit more substance on the question. Obviously if it is a lump of plastic that breaks down and eventually becomes much smaller particles, you are not going to be able to filter that out.
Dr Kinsey: No.
Q77 Graham Stringer: It is a different source, but there is quite a lot of this that does come through water plants. Could they not be built in order to get rid of that, and how much would it remove if you could remove all the plastic that does come through water plants?
Dr Kinsey: Water quality treatment plants can be improved, but, rather than going down that road, it would be much simpler to stop that microplastic at source, so stop the cosmetics industry using microplastics in the first place. That would cut out a whole source of microplastics. It would be hugely expensive, I would imagine, to retrofit all our wastewater treatment plants so that they would actually sort out these very small particles of microplastic.
Professor Thompson: I would agree with that. It is difficult once the material gets into the environment to know exactly where it came from because you are dealing with such small fragments. You can identify the polymer type, but polyethylene is used in cosmetic products and also in a wide range of other applications. It is quite difficult to know exactly where it has come from once it gets into the environment. It is certain that some is entering via waste water and it may be possible to remove some of that, but it does seem perhaps an unnecessary use of nonrenewable resources. In the US alone, it was calculated that 260 tonnes per annum of plastic were being released into waste water from these personal care products alone. So it is quite a substantial use. I have brought with me-if any of the Committee want to look at it later on-some samples of products and the quantities of plastic we have extracted from them, and some magnified images to illustrate the kinds of material that there are. It is quite a substantial amount in every bottle that is used. It would be better to stop it going in perhaps rather than to try to screen it out in sewage treatment.
Q78 David Tredinnick: Is Government action necessary to stop or discourage the use of microplastics in personal care products? Should the Government take further action? Building on what you have been saying, isn’t it really an awareness issue? Your colleague in the previous session was talking about awareness in Switzerland and in Australia. Is it not a fact that we need to get across to the public that, if they buy these products that are not in a glass bottle-or the products themselves-unless they are user-friendly, they will be damaging the environment?
Dr Kinsey: It would be easier if the product simply did not contain these products in the first place. We know that it is perfectly possible for a company to do this. Unilever has already promised to take out all the plastic materials from their products. I think that is an easier way of going rather than trying to get people to pick and choose the products that they use.
From a Government point of view, we would like to see a concerted effort either to persuade companies to voluntarily take out these particles from their products or to introduce an EUwide ban, which is something that we and other European environmental NGOs are also asking the EU Governments to do. The Dutch Government have also agreed to look into this matter.
Professor Thompson: Can I add to that? You are absolutely right in terms of awareness, and I think that, although personal care products are part of the issue, they are only one of the sources of microplastic. The fragmentation of larger items is also a major source. Awareness is important to driving informed choice rather than necessarily legislation to ban something, but that is where perhaps Government need to take a role in terms of making sure that the public receive the kind of information that they need in order to make an informed choice. I would bring that in from a point of view of wider use of labelling. The plastics that we commonly find in marine debris can achieve their benefits for society without necessarily ending up in the natural environment, and that is about sustainable consumption and production. Labelling there could certainly help drive consumer awareness.
Q79 David Tredinnick: Is it just an issue for Government? I was thinking about Anita Roddick and Body Shop, with her animal testing campaign "Not tested on animals", which was very effective. Why is it always down to Government? Government might be able to stimulate consumer awareness, but there is a good opportunity here, I would have thought, for an enterprising organisation to get a public campaign going.
Professor Thompson: You make a good point. I have also brought with me-and if the panel want to look at it later on they can-an example of early industryled action to try to remediate this problem, the introduction of a degradable carrier bag, which was apparently the world’s first. After eight years in my office, what I am left with is a million small pieces of plastic. It has degraded as a carrier bag, but what we have ended up with is lots of pieces in the environment. So there is a role for legislature to make sure that products that are released with a supposedly ecologicallyenhanced end of life are correctly labelled and that consumers have the correct information.
Chair: That leads very neatly to a specific question that Stephen is going to ask.
Q80 Stephen Metcalfe: Thank you, Chairman. You talked about Unilever having pledged to phase out the use of microplastics. That begs the question: is there an alternative to them? Does that mean that other companies are dragging their feet, or are Unilever being overambitious in their claims?
Dr Kinsey: There are plenty of alternatives. Microplastics have only been used relatively recently. Before that, alternatives such as nut husks or apricot shells-all those kinds of natural products-were used as the type of thing you would find in cosmetics these days. So it seems to me that the very fact that Unilever have said, "Okay, we will just change" means that it is very simple to go back to using the products that they used to use before microplastics.
Q81 Stephen Metcalfe: So it is something that we can genuinely make a difference to.
Dr Kinsey: Yes, absolutely, and it is also generally possible to do.
Q82 Stephen Metcalfe: I think I know the answer to this, but I will ask it anyway. I think you have already said no, but do you know how much of the microplastics that are found could be attributable to the cosmetics industry? Are there any other industries where there is an obvious quantifiable use that could be changed relatively simply?
Dr Kinsey: I don’t think you can quantify the amount of microplastics that are coming down from the cosmetics industry. You would have to do some kind of analysis at the wastewater treatment, possibly, to find that out. The industries that do use microplastics now are, for example, sandblasting. Instead of using sand, they now use microplastic particles simply, I have been told, because they last longer and they can reuse them. Again, those are very likely to be washed down through wastewater treatments as well.
Q83 Stephen Metcalfe: Do you have anything to add to that?
Professor Thompson: No. Sandblasting is also a concern, with plastic particles being used as an alternative. Particularly where you are blasting something delicate and where it is an aluminium structure, plastics are quite widely used, and I have been sent photographs by members of the public of cleanup operations after transport of very fine particles where it was literally swept into a street drain. That was not a picture from the UK, but it emphasises the readiness with which this kind of small and relatively inexpensive material is perhaps being disposed of inappropriately in some locations.
Q84 Chair: Can I push you further on how the big corporates are acting, because there does seem to be a difference? Unilever have gone one way, L’Oréal have not thus far. Is it your perception that this has been done because there is a recognition of the environmental hazards? Is it an ethical decision, in other words, or is it a commercial one?
Dr Kinsey: Gosh, I am sure there is an element of both in reality. The statement from Unilever did say that, because they were concerned about the environment and they had taken on board the arguments that they had heard from the environmental NGOs, they were going to change, but I am sure, again, there is a very good PR value for them in doing so. If that means they change, then that sounds great.
Q85 Chair: Do you believe the science is strong enough for us to be saying to the rest of the industry, "Follow Unilever’s lead"?
Dr Kinsey: I think it potentially is-and Richard knows much more than me-
Q86 Chair: That is "potentially". Let us be a bit more specific than that because we have to be evidence-based.
Dr Kinsey: If I could explain, there has been a lot of-actually, Richard, you are probably better to talk about the risks of toxins on microplastics than I am.
Professor Thompson: You want hard and fast evidence and there is an absence of that at the moment. Microplastics are relatively new and our knowledge of them affecting the environment is limited. There are studies that show they have the potential to increase the transport of chemicals to organisms that ingest them. In the recent Convention on Biological Diversity report that I mentioned, it is interesting that over the last 10 years there has been an increase, and over 10% of the encounters that are reported between wildlife and plastic debris are now with microplastics. The trends are increasing and these are persistent materials. They are going to remain in the environment as these small fragments and are not necessarily going to behave in the same way as natural sediments.
In some instances, where you are talking about the breakdown of a larger item that has got into the sea inadvertently, it is not going to be possible to stop that. But, in other cases, where you are adding small fragments to a cosmetic product, there is an element of us needing to take the precautionary principle, because the quantities are quite substantial, they are not likely to be removed by sewage treatment unless we change our practice, and they are going to accumulate in the environment. There is evidence that the rate of ingestion is increasing and there are concerns from the point of view of physical and toxicological harm, when actually there is potentially no need for these items to be there in the first place.
It was an interesting point that you raised, Stephen, about what these items were doing there and what industry could do. Yes, they are primarily there, I understand, as an abrasive, but I also question-looking at the quantities involved-whether, in some products, they could actually be a bulking agent; there could be a cost saving from including relatively inexpensive plastic. Rather than thinning the product down with water, which might make it less attractive, you can put in something that does not alter its gelatinous nature. I am a little curious, and maybe some more probing is needed, as to how much is actually needed in a product to achieve an abrasive action. I think there is more that industry could do.
Q87 Chair: More research is needed to measure the impact.
Professor Thompson: Definitely.
Q88 Chair: But because we know there is a detrimental impact and there is a very quick fix because they are unnecessary products, your position would be to encourage the industry users to exclude such uses.
Professor Thompson: Absolutely, yes.
Dr Kinsey: Yes.
Q89 Chair: Would you expect that to happen rapidly or see things phased out, and, if so, over what sort of period is it reasonable to put to them?
Dr Kinsey: I would imagine a phased approach would have to be taken for industry’s sake. We cannot expect them to change products from one day to another. But, if you follow the example of Unilever, they have promised to phase out products within the next few years, so I would hope that other industries would follow that lead and use the same type of time scale.
Q90 David Morris: Is Government action necessary to stop or discourage the use of microplastics in personal care products? What should that action be? Is the EU taking any action on this particular subject?
Dr Kinsey: Microplastics are part of the Marine Strategy Framework Directive. Our position is that a lot of these microplastics are coming from a landbased source-that is us-and that will affect the Water Framework Directive. If we can get them before they even get into the sea, we will meet our Marine Strategy Framework Directive necessity. I think it is a question that we need to look back and stop things at source before they get into the sea and, basically, once they are, there is very little we can do to control them and very little we can do to mitigate the potential that we have. In both the WFD and the MSFD, the cautionary principle is stated as a factor that needs to be taken into account. So I think we need some kind of either Government push or action to try and get these particles phased out of the cosmetics industry in the first place.
Q91 David Morris: Why does the Marine Conservation Society believe that the Water Framework Directive is the best regulatory tool to ban microplastics?
Dr Kinsey: I think it is because, with the WFD, you are getting them before they get into the marine environment. The marine environment is our main concern. If we stop them before they are even entering our waterways, whether rivers or the sea, then half the problem is over.
Professor Thompson: They are very difficult to remove once they enter the marine environment, and it is far better if we can work backwards towards the source in terms of regulation.
Q92 Chair: In terms of what we have heard this morning, if one takes a water supplier, Thames Water, which we have been told is treated, retreated and retreated, presumably before it gets to the sea, microplastics have been further concentrated potentially in Thames Water. So should Londoners be more worried than the rest of the country?
Professor Thompson: I do not think this is an issue from a public health perspective. It is not a question of these microscopic particles returning via drinking water. It is a concern, at the moment at least, more for the natural environment, and I think it is a case of reducing those.
Q93 Chair: Let us put it slightly differently. Is there any evidence that in basins like the Thames there is any greater detrimental effect than there is in others where the water supply is from a more natural source?
Professor Thompson: There is no evidence that I am aware of at all, but our knowledge base is much weaker about the effects of debris and microplastics as we move into fresh waters. There is a lot more information. Most of the research on debris has been done in the marine environment, and that applies equally to the work on microscopic particles. There has been relatively little from freshwater systems.
Q94 Chair: Should we be encouraging the Research Councils to think about that as an environment to work in?
Professor Thompson: That would be very worth while.
Dr Kinsey: I think we should too.
Chair: That has been intriguing. Are there any further questions from colleagues? I am very grateful. It has been a short session but extremely valuable. Thank you very much indeed.