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Contaminants in Europe's seas Moving towards a clean, non-toxic marine environment

The most alarming of all man's assaults upon the environment is the contamination of air, earth, water and sea with dangerous and even lethal materials' (Carson, 1962).

Contaminants in Europe's seas

Moving towards a clean, non-toxic marine environment

ISSN 1977-8449

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For decades, European countries have shared a common vision of a marine environment with close to zero concentrations of synthetic substances and near background levels of naturally occurring substances (Table 1.1).


Efforts to achieve this vision have happened in parallel with the extremely fast discovery of new substances, followed by an ever-increasing production and consumption of chemicals. Our consumption/emission patterns have reached such a scale that scientists have become concerned about whether we are at risk of breaching a planetary boundary for 'novel entities' (Box 1.1; Figure 2.1).


As a result, the question of whether or not we are on track to achieve this dual policy vision of a marine environment with a low concentration of contaminants remains as important as ever.


This assessment represents a first attempt to map contamination 'problem areas'  and  'non-problem areas' at the scale of Europe's seas, while also exploring whether Europe has broken some of the trends for long-established hazardous substances.


Consequently, the overarching aims of this report are:


  • to establish a baseline for 'non-problem' and 'problem' areas for contaminants across Europe's marine waters;


  • to present temporal trends in the concentration levels of selected contaminants;


to provide an indicator-based methodology for assessing contaminants across Europe's seas

  • and, in the process, for highlighting data coverage and gaps;


  • to reflect upon the


The assessment is based on publicly available monitoring data, primarily collected in the context of the Water Framework Directive (WFD) and the Marine Strategy Framework Directive (MSFD) (see Annex 5).


It is built on existing assessment thresholds (criteria, levels, etc.) and a harmonised, regionally supported and peer-reviewed approach capable of embracing the diversity of substances monitored within and across regional seas, i.e. the CHASE+ tool (Figure 3.1).


Chapter 1 sets the scene, defines the problem and focuses on existing policies implemented to abate contamination of marine waters in Europe. The key findings are:


  • Synthetic chemicals and heavy metals mobilised by human activities (i.e. contaminants) constitute a large-scale risk to our seas, our oceans and

our planet.


  • Policy commitments to reduce discharges, emissions and losses of hazardous substances to Europe's seas have been in place for


  • An advanced and comprehensive European Union (EU) regulatory framework is in place to help mitigate the documented and potential risk to human health and the environment from


Chapter 2 describes the usage of chemicals in modern society and the sources, fate and effects of contaminants in the seas. The key findings are:


  • Chemicals are essential components of modern society and highly influential for our well-being.


  • Chemical production and consumption have been increasing fast over recent decades with approximately 150 000 substances in commercial


  • Contaminants continue to find their way into the seas through multiple


  • Contaminants have potential and documented negative effects on marine life, our well-being and our







Chapter 3 focuses on identifying current 'problem areas' and 'non-problem areas' with respect to the contamination status of Europe's regional seas. The key findings are (Table ES.1):


  • The contamination status of Europe's seas has been

mapped in 1 541 assessment units.


  • The mapping of 'problem areas' and 'non-problem areas' is carried out using a well-documented, regionally supported, multi-metric indicator-based tool named 'CHASE+'.


  • Most areas (85 % of the assessment units) are classified as being 'problem areas', indicating that many of the marine areas in Europe are impaired as result of contaminants (Map 5).


Chapter 4 describes the results of long-term monitoring of specific contaminants and the temporal trends in their concentrations. The key findings are:


  • Trends in the concentration levels of selected substances seem to be improving for

some substances.


  • The monitoring of a wider variety of substances can provide earlier


  • The monitoring of a predefined subset of substances could ease preparation of regional

and European assessments and ensure consistent,

solid policy support on progress.


Chapter 5 contains region-specific summaries of the report's findings, a crosscutting synthesis and prospects for the future. This chapter also discusses the effectiveness of existing policies and measures as well as the potential need for additional actions and abatement measures.


The key findings are:


  • The contamination of Europe's regional seas continues to be a large-scale challenge, though progress has been


  • The concentrations of some well-known contaminants appear to be declining, though not all of them meet the agreed


  • Positive effects, as a result of the significant efforts to reduce input into the marine environment, are observed for some ecosystem


  • Key politically agreed targets related to contamination in the marine environment remain unlikely to be met on time, e.g. the Generation Target and the descriptor on contaminants that is part of the Marine Strategy Framework Directive's goal of achieving good environmental status in Europe’s regional


  • Persistent substances remain in marine ecosystems, so avoiding upstream use of persistent and hazardous substances is essential for reaching

long-term policy commitments.


  • To reach the policy vision of achieving clean,

non-toxic European seas, a profound transition is needed in how we address marine pollution.


This publication is number one in a series of European Environment Agency (EEA) marine thematic reports covering a broad range of topics: (1) contaminants, (2) eutrophication, (3) marine biodiversity, (4) potential cumulative effects of multiple human pressures, (5) sustainable use, and (6) marine protected areas (MPAs).

The seventh publication will be the second edition of the EEA Marine Messages report. Preparing these thematic assessments provided the marine input to

The European environment – State and Outlook 2020, by the EEA.






Table ES.1      Summary of status of contaminants in Europe's seas, 2018



Baltic Sea

Black Sea

Mediterranean Sea

North-East Atlantic


Classification status (percentage of area assessed as 'problem areas')

96.3 %

90.8 %

87.3 %

75.0 %

Information coverage (1 000 km2)

C: 62 out of 215

C: 12 out of 111

C: 80 out of 611

C: 172 out of 649

O: 139 out of 187

O: 116 out of 365

O: 14 out of 1 920

O: 888 out of 6 209

Dominating trends (based on available information)





Achievement of agreed policy targets for contaminants in the marine environment by 2020-2021

Policy commitment




Achievement of policy targets by 2020-2021

United Nations (UN) Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 14 'Life below water'

Prevent and significantly reduce marine pollution of all kinds, in particular from land-based activities (by 2025)


Baltic Sea Action Plan 2007

A Baltic Sea undisturbed by hazardous substances (by 2021)


The Esbjerg Declaration 1995

Continuously reducing discharges, emissions and losses of hazardous substances moving towards the target of their cessation within one generation (by 2020)


Bergen Statement 2010 (OSPAR)

'… ultimate aim of achieving concentrations in the marine environment near background values for naturally occurring substances and close to zero for man-made synthetic substances.'


Hazardous Waste Protocol 2011 (Barcelona Convention)

Minimise the risk of pollution of harmful or noxious substances and materials


Directive 2000/60/EC

Achieve good chemical status in coastal and territorial waters


Directive 2008/56/EC         Achieve good environmental status in the marine environment by 2020

Legend: Indicative assessment of:

Status and trends of contaminants                                                        Information availability and quality


Majority of assessment units classified as 'problem areas'/deteriorating trends dominate


Limited information


Majority of assessment units classified as

'non-problem areas'/improving trends dominate


Good information


Notes:       The status assessment builds on the information analysed with CHASE+ in Chapter 3. The trends are as presented in Chapter 4.

C, coastal waters; O, offshore.

About the author

Dr. Howard Dryden

Dr. Howard Dryden

Dr. Dryden has unique knowledge combination of biology, chemistry and technology and is the inventor of the activated, bio-resistant filter media AFM®. Dr. Dryden is one of the world`s leading experts in sustainable water treatment.

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