WHO estimates that around 6% of the global burden of disease is related to water, with infectious diarrhoea being the largest component (accounting for about 70%, or 1.7 million deaths per year). Better management of water and sanitation would therefore prevent over 30 million cases of water-related disease per year in the European Region.
The international legal instrument to approach the problems of water-related diseases is the Protocol on Water and Health to the 1992 Convention on the Protection and Use of Transboundary Watercourses and International Lakes. It was adopted in 1999 at the Third Ministerial Conference on Environment and Health and its objective is to “promote at all appropriate levels… the protection of human health and well-being… through improving water management… and through preventing, controlling, and reducing water-related disease”. Signatories undertook to establish and maintain comprehensive national and/or local surveillance and early warning systems to prevent, and respond to, water-related diseases.
At European level, a strategy against pollution of water is set out in Article 16 of the Water Framework Directive adopted in 2000. The first step of the strategy was the establishment of a list of 32 priority hazardous substances which eventually became Annex X of the Directive and which will represent the basis for community-wide water quality standards and emission controls.
These substances are mainly pollutants found in water which represent a risk for the aquatic environment but also for human health (human toxicity via aquatic exposure routes). The list includes selected existing chemicals, plant protection products, biocides, metals and other groups like Polyaromatic Hydrocarbons (PAH) that are mainly incineration by-products and Polybrominated Biphenylethers (PBDE) that are used as flame retardants.
Other initiatives at EU level are led, among others, by DG Research - Water for Life initiative, Environment for Young Europeans and the European Environmental Agency. In particular, the EEA covered the issue of hazardous substances in the European marine environment (trends in metals and persistent organic pollutants) in a recent report. Among Member States, it is worth mentioning the Spanish Hydrological Plan.