Emerging pollution: how can we rise to the new environmental and health challenges?

Interviews: We asked Maria Neira, Elizabeth Girardi-Schoen and Claude Laruelle.

New substances are continually being added to the list of products that are hazardous to the environment and health. In this context, what are the pathways and priorities for both protecting the environment and continuing to promote innovation? Three key players in the debate discuss their points of view.

Maria Neira, how does the WHO identify emerging pollutants and their effects?

Maria Neira, Director, Department of Public Health, Environmental and Social Determinants of Health, World Health Organization (WHO)

WHO has the advantage of being able to rely on the most eminent scientists, coming from the most prestigious hospitals, universities and laboratories in the world. With the help of groups of experts on a national, regional and global level, and in collaboration with governments and national health systems, we fulfill a watchdog role. When a particular domain requires us to assemble experts, we implement proactive research programs. We have recently done this with endocrine disruptors. Last but not least, we monitor the scientific literature and publications by researchers.

“While we cannot put people responsible for pollution in prison […] we have political clout and, above all, a powerful tool: scientific data.” Maria Neira

What areas do you monitor in particular?

We are constantly looking to identify what is most important from the point of view of health impacts. At the moment, we are focusing on air quality and atmospheric pollutants. The latter are responsible for 6.5 million premature deaths a year and represent a global threat due to the surge in urbanization. Since early November, we have observed severe peaks in New Delhi, Tehran and London.
Another source of concern is electronic residue. Our digital world is generating an enormous amount of waste, which – in countries where waste treatment is not very well regulated – ends up in open landfill sites. It is processed by hand, without protection, in highly contaminated air, to recover and resell the heavy metals it contains. And then, as I said, we are also closely monitoring endocrine disruptors to see how we can limit their impact on our health. Finally, we have not forgotten about conventional risks such as drinking water contamination, radiation or a lack of sanitation. All of these environmental risks cause over 12 million deaths per year, which could be avoided through good preventive policies.

How can the WHO influence legislation?

It has to be said right away that we do not have any legal powers and cannot put people responsible for pollution in prison! However, we have political clout and, above all, a powerful tool: scientific data. In this way, we help create social demand so that citizens call for a better environment for themselves. We can also suggest standards along with technological changes, for example replacing certain fuels with other less-polluting ones. We are aware that industrialists are dealing with growing regulations and requirements. We maintain an ongoing dialogue with them to understand their constraints and attempt to influence them, in the positive sense of the word. Because there is also business to be done in sustainable development, and a whole market for clean production processes. Moreover, many industrialists have understood this and know that this movement is irreversible.

Elizabeth Girardi-Schoen, what is TEVA’s vision on environmental issues?

Elizabeth Girardi-Schoen, Vice President of Global Environment and Sustainability at Teva Pharmaceuticals

directrice de l’Environnement et du Développement durable de TEVA Laboratoires
At TEVA we believe environment health and safety management (EHS) is incredibly important to the business both from a risk reduction point of view but also, much more importantly, in terms of our contribution to society. TEVA is committed to business practices that promote safe and environmentally responsible economic growth. In the past, as the TEVA has acquired a number of companies over time, there was not a uniform approach to how things were done; so for the last three years we’ve been building a global environment health and safety management system. This includes standards and specifications, but also an information management system, and metrics for measuring our performance. We believe this will drive excellence across our entire global organization, and it is part of what we call our journey to excellence.

“More than 80% of pharmaceutical residues in the environment originate in patient use, which means they don’t come from the production process.” Elizabeth Girardi-Schoen

So in concrete terms how does TEVA go about reducing its environmental impacts?

Waste is only waste if you cannot turn it into somebody else’s product. Of course we should always look at how to generate less, but more important is to think about how the things that we do generate can be used for something else. For example, we use a lot of solvents that may not be reusable in the pharma industry because of the high quality standards that we have, but that same solvent can be very useful in another industry! So finding good partners that can use the material without requiring a lot of treatment is a good way to go about it. Of course for other waste, such as plastics, metal, paper, etc., it is more a matter of separation and recycling. And sometimes we have been reusing it ourselves, for instance in our packaging we try to use recycled content and we also make our packaging as recyclable as possible.

How about pharmaceutical residues in the environment, and emerging pollutants such as endocrine disruptors?

More than 80% of pharmaceutical residues in the environment come from normal patient use, which means they don’t come from the production process but from patients who use these drugs to live better, healthier lives, before naturally excreting them (they are then dealt with by municipal plants). There has been an extensive amount of work to study the impacts of that, and WHO says the trace amounts of pharmaceuticals in the environment are not harmful at all to human health – though there is some uncertainty about the impacts of certain compounds on aquatic species.

How do you see the issue of the increasingly heavy regulations industry has to deal with?

The environment, health and safety standards that we are implementing generally go well beyond what the law requests.
I would say that regulations often do not encourage recycling or other forms of environmental progress. For example, in light of the fear of spills there is a big regulatory drive for handling the waste closer to home where it is produced and not having it cross borders. However, if a country does not have the right technology to enable high-quality recycling, or energy-producing incineration, these rules force us to cross borders, which uses more energy and increases risk during transport. Yet even when the rules are hard we still try to make recycling happen.

Claude Laruelle, how does Veolia help its industrial partners adapt to increasing health and environmental regulations?

Claude Laruelle, Veolia’s CEO of Global Enterprises, Chairman of Veolia Water Technologies, and a member of Veolia’s Executive Committee

directeur des Entreprises de spécialité mondiale de Veolia, président de Veolia Water Technologies et membre du comité exécutif de Veolia
Avoiding health risks and reducing the environmental impact of industrial activities is one of Veolia’s key missions. The Group develops and deploys unique technical processes to deal with the increasing number of difficult pollution sources. We enjoy a strong distinctive position in this field, as we are at once involved in the design, integration and operation of the technologies. This comprehensive expertise allows us to develop solutions tailored to the specific needs of our clients, support them as their issues at stake evolve over the long term, and thus guarantee facilities’ environmental performance.
For example, when the European Union tightened up the regulations on incineration, Veolia had to adapt its plants and develop a whole series of high-performance technologies, such as measurement tools at the chimney outlet and additional treatment stages to capture certain emerging pollutants, while limiting operating costs. We now offer this benchmark know-how to our clients and partners.

What cutting-edge technologies have been developed by Veolia to tackle new pollutants?

I’ll mention two. We have long been involved in the field of endocrine disruptors in Switzerland – a country that is very much ahead when it comes to these questions. With the city of Lucerne and local scientists, within the context of protecting Lake Lucerne, we worked using one of our existing technologies, “Actiflo®,” to which we have added activated carbon filtration steps. With the end result that these molecules are trapped extremely effectively, and we now have a promising industrial pilot operating in Lucerne.
The second example is mercury. This long-known toxic substance has made a return in recent years because it is involved in the production process for screens, which are multiplying in line with the exponential growth of the digital sector, and it also is a natural element in the use of unconventional hydrocarbons. We have therefore developed solutions to capture it in incinerators, and we are now experts in a whole range of filters and catalysts for trapping and recovering this metal.

“We enjoy a strong distinctive position in the field of difficult pollutions.” Claude Laruelle

In your opinion, what strategy should be adopted when new pollutants appear?

In general, you should proceed in three steps. Take the example of endocrine disruptors, which may be applied to all kinds of emerging pollutants, such as pharmaceutical residues. First of all, you must learn how to characterize them, in other words develop measurement technologies that often don’t exist. Then, you have to separate and capture them as far upstream as possible, working with manufacturers, to prevent them from becoming diluted and much more difficult to recover. Finally, you have to treat them: ideally recycle or, at the very least, neutralize them.
Today, we have certainly not completed these three steps. But the precedent of heavy metals in the nineties gives us cause for optimism: we acted in exactly this way and now the contamination of natural environments by these pollutants has become more rare. It will be the same thing for emerging pollutants, provided that society, from the consumer to the industrial producer through the public authorities, accepts the idea that this process has a cost, which may be steep during the emergence phase of these technologies. This cost should nonetheless be put into perspective in view of the resulting socio-economic consequences (R&D, investment, employment, etc.)  n