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UT’s ‘Grey Water Footprint’ for tackling drug pollution in rivers

Multi-resistant microorganisms and medicines in our water, air, soil and food are pollutants that threaten human and animal health. Twelve innovations for dealing with this kind of pollution will be unveiled in Zwolle on 12 and 13 February, the results of a number of transnational collaborations. University of Twente’s innovation is the Grey Water Footprint, a tool for showing water pollution caused by drugs.

The cross-border project MEDUWA (MEDicines in WAter) focused on the question: How can we reduce the level of medicines and multi-resistant microorganisms in ecosystems in the Netherlands and Germany? Twenty-six partners participated in the project, in addition to the University of Twente. The pilot studies took place along the Vecht river basin, which flows north and east from Utrecht.

Grey Water Footprint

UT worked on the development of one of these innovations: the Grey Water Footprint. This tool diagnoses the degree of drug pollution in rivers by giving a spatial representation of the concentration of medicines in water. The test results from the Vecht river basin offer particularly good insights into the environmental situation. The tool can also be used to evaluate existing measures and then communicate the findings.

UT-researcher Lara Wöhler: "Our research highlights that from a consumption perspective, we produce a Grey Water Footprint not only through direct pharmaceutical consumption, but also through the consume of animal products. Consequently, an effective way for consumers to reduce pharmaceutical pollution includes eating less meat, eggs and dairy, which comes along with a large range of other environmental and health benefits as well. An influence of the pharmaceutical pollution from livestock production is especially relevant for regions with large livestock densities as our study region the Vecht catchment, which even externalized some of their grey water footprint through manure export."

Vecht river basin

The German-Dutch Vecht river basin, along with its tributaries the Steinfurter Aa, the Dinkel and the Regge, forms the complete testing ground for the project, which continues through the fall of 2020. Twelve innovations for tackling water pollution are being developed. The project simultaneously supports transnational collaboration and boosts the innovative capacity of regional economies.

Innovations against water pollution

One of the other innovations is a model that shows the spread of water-borne medicines and antibiotic resistant bacteria in the region, including the risks to human health and the volume of water that has been polluted. Furthermore, a whole range of solutions has been developed: from medicines based on body proteins (that don’t produce waste products) to a new technology that renders dangerous drugs flushed down the toilet harmless.

Conference in Zwolle

Presentations at the two-day conference in Zwolle will offer new insights into related topics, such as water quality and climate change, the risk of infection from swimming in untested surface water, and the significant increase in multi-resistant moulds in this area. During the meeting, the MEDUWA coalition will review what they have achieved together, what has been learned from MEDUWA and its innovations, and how these could influence EU policies.

MEDUWA Statement

The project’s partners and stakeholders have signed a joint MEDUWA Statement as a pledge to continuous efforts in the fight against, and prevention of, chemical and biological pollutants entering our water, air and soil. Stakeholders include representatives of local, regional and national governments, and businesses and NGOs who are involved in the fields of human and environmental health in both countries.

Further information

On Wednesday and Thursday, 12 and 13 February 2020, the next meeting of project partners and stakeholders in the German-Dutch MEDUWA Vecht Project will be held in the Hanseatic town of Zwolle. This consortium, financed by the European INTERREG-VA Programme, consists of 27 partners, including businesses, universities, hospitals, governmental and non-governmental organisations. The lead partner of the project is the University of Osnabrück’s Institute for Environmental Systems Research (IUSF).

drs. J.G.M. van den Elshout (Janneke)
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