Science-to-Policy Tara Europa Lab Workshop in Lyon – Chemical pollution in the Rhone Bassin

Science to policy workshop Lyon

For over a century, the Rhone basin has been home to a high density of chemical industry facilities. The region, known as the “Chemical valley”, is therefore an ideal place to discuss the monitoring and control of these increasingly complex and opaque industries.

Polychlorinated biphenyls, or PCBs, provide for a good case study to start with. Persistent in the environment, creating health and environmental problems, they have been massively used since the 1950s in various consumer and industrial products. Recognised as eternal pollutants, several studies have demonstrated their harmful effects on long-term health. More than just a waste treatment issue, these PCBs pose a health and environmental challenge on an altogether different scale. Today, history is repeating itself with a new family of molecules: per- and polyfluoroalkylated, or PFAS.

For the Lyon stopover, which took place in January 2024, the Tara Europa Lab and BlueRemediomics project brought together health professionals, local elected representatives and water quality monitoring bodies to highlight the challenges of managing diffuse chemical pollution and the costs that such pollution generates for taxpayers.

In the opening talk, André Abreu from the Tara Ocean Foundation presented the TREC/TARA EUROPA expedition and the BlueRemediomics project, highlighting the potential scientific legacy for the European coastlines ecological assessments. André also spoke about the lack of integrated vision for the land to sea interface in terms of chemical pollution.

Afterwards, experts went deep into the history of the PCB pollution in the Rhone, opening a discussion on the current crisis with high levels of PFAs found in potable water in the region. After the assessment of the issues, managers presented the actions and needs for the Lyon City Hall, the Rhône Region and Regional Water Agency. PCBs and PFAs have proven negative effects on human health, which has led to the creation of concentration thresholds. These thresholds are set and monitored by the French Office for Biodiversity and the Water Agency. Monitoring is carried out not only on identified molecules of concern, but also in prospective form to anticipate future crises. Two types of monitoring – regular, in application of national and European directives, and prospective – enable us to remain on the lookout for new potentially dangerous molecules.

Nevertheless, the initial cost of monitoring these diffuse pollutants is usually borne by the metropolitan authorities, which face difficulties in controlling diffuse pollution, notably due to the need to prove the harmfulness of a product and its presence above regulatory thresholds in order to control an industrial site. In the case of PFAs, the estimated costs to the community can represent several tens of thousands of euros, ranging from the construction of infrastructure to guarantee access to drinking water in the face of the degradation of historical sources, the burden of monitoring industrial sites, or the loss of environmental services. Talking about science to policy interface, experts pointed to the lack of data on micro-pollutants, and engaged in a dialogue with Tara team to explore the TREC and BlueRemediomics potential to help better assess impacts on ocean and human microbiomes.

What are PFAS ?

PFAS (per- and polyfluoroalkyl) are so-called eternal pollutants, as they never completely degrade in the environment. Used since the 1950s for their non-stick, heat-resistant and waterproofing properties, they are found in industrial applications and consumer products (textiles, food packaging, stoves, fire-fighting foams, non-stick coatings, etc.) Studies indicate that long-term exposure to certain PFAS may be associated with health effects.

Known as the Chemical Valley, this situation in the Rhône is the result of decades of industrial activities and lack of understanding by the authorities responsible for monitoring and enforcing environmental law, always giving priority to the economic interests in particular. Today, the complexity of understanding, monitoring and managing diffuse pollution calls for a holistic approach, making it possible to assess the real costs of these molecules for our societies. PFAs and PCBs serve as crucial examples and lessons for the proper management of future crises, underlining the urgency of concerted action to preserve health, the environment and social justice.

What actions are being proposed ?

Officials from the French Office for Biodiversity (OFB) and the Regional Water Agency spoke again about the need to monitor molecules of concern and look ahead to future crises. This is made difficult for the City Hall agencies, especially with the burden of proof issue (a product’s harmfulness must be proven in order to control the ban, and not to authorize payments only if the non-harmfulness is proven).

Concerning the water crisis, speakers from Lyon stressed that the control of industrial sites will be the responsibility of the City Hall in a first stage, with the cost of ecological restoration being held only by the public sector. They expressed challenges to make the water drinkable again, where heavy investments are needed. Total estimated cost to the community is around 40.000.000 euros. Today, a majority of Cities are lacking resources, institutions have very few agents, and also needs to better assess the cost of loss of environmental services (recreational fishing, swimming, etc.).

What are the drivers for prevention and solutions?

By the end of the workshop, lawyers discussed the means available to the legal system to combat such pollution. Standards already exist in environmental law, and it is not a question of creating new ones, as this would contribute to legislative inflation. A legal expert was able to explain the various cases in progress, stressing the lack of resources for effective controls and the lack of application of environmental law in favor of safeguarding employment and economic interests. Hopefully, robust science will be available soon to help build indicators on the concrete impacts from PCB and PFAs on human health and on marine and terrestrial biodiversity, giving more arguments to the ban of these molecules at the national and European level. We cannot wait anymore, the cost of the reparation is largely superior to the cost of the ecological transition towards a world free of toxic chemicals.

More Information:

TREC Expedition: The European Molecular Biology Laboratory (EMBL) spearheads the TREC expedition (Traversing European Coastlines), focused on studying the interface between land and sea in their natural context with an expedition across the entire European Coastline. The scientists on board of the Tara research vessel, a key component of TREC, collect water samples while scientists from EMBL conduct soil analyses on land. This comparative approach sheds light on the interconnections between these samples with the aim of understanding how human-induced challenges such as climate change and pollution impact these ecosystems. The ultimate goal is to gather enough data to present policymakers with robust scientific information for informed policy decisions.

The BIOcean5D project, co-funded by the EU, seeks to comprehend the ocean across five dimensions of space, time, biodiversity and the human impacts on it. This multifaceted perspective enables a comprehensive understanding of changing oceanic biodiversity.

The BlueRemediomics project delves into the world of marine microbiome organisms, which constitute around two-thirds of the ocean's biomass. These microscopic organisms play a pivotal role in ocean health, facilitating detoxification processes and the decomposition and recycling of materials in the ocean, such as nutrients, and phosphates.