New guidelines to keep chemicals out of our waterways

Monday, 19 November, 2018 | Supplied by: The University of Queensland

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Environmental water quality is set to improve in Australia and New Zealand, thanks to the development of a new method to set the maximum acceptable concentration of chemicals in waterways.

Intended to help protect aquatic ecosystems, the method’s development was part of a revision of the Australian and New Zealand Guidelines for Fresh and Marine Water Quality. It was made possible by a collaborative research effort that included the Queensland Department of Environment and Science (DES), CSIRO, the Environmental Research Institute of the Supervising Scientist, the NSW EPA, Environmetrics, The University of Queensland (UQ) and the National Institute of Water and Atmospheric Research (New Zealand).

“The new method is helping develop guidelines for approximately 60 high-priority chemicals, particularly pesticides, metals, industrial chemicals and pharmaceuticals,” said UQ researcher Dr Michael Warne, who contributed to the work.

“This means we can continue to make sure our waterways aren’t toxic to the thousands of species, from fish to microalgae, that we share these resources with.”

Dr Warne said his decades of work to clean Australia’s waterways were inspired by the book Silent Spring, published in 1962, which documents the adverse effects of pesticides on the environment.

“It made me realise the importance of water quality to ecosystem health and the harmful effects of pesticides,” he said.

With the guidelines now incorporating scientific developments since the year 2000 — ie, when they were last updated — Dr Warne said Australians and New Zealanders can now be “much more confident that our waterway ecosystems will be protected” — though there is still room for improvement.

“These guidelines are designed to protect organisms from the effects of individual chemicals, but organisms are generally exposed to mixtures of different chemicals,” he said.

“I’m now focusing my research, along with my colleagues from DES, on developing a method to estimate the effects of mixtures of chemicals.

“There’s simply no room for complacency, particularly with issues like the quality of water discharged on the Great Barrier Reef and the water quality in many urban waterways.

“We need to keep working towards better water quality, for not only our own sake, but for the life that thrives in our waterways.”

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