Emerging Pollutants:
Protecting Water Quality
for the Health of People
and the Environment

Emerging Pollutants:
Protecting Water Quality for the Health
of People and the Environment

UNESCO defines emerging pollutants in a broad sense as any synthetic or naturally-occurring chemical or any microorganism that is not commonly monitored or regulated in the environment with potentially known or suspected adverse ecological or human health effects. The OECD defines contaminants of emerging concern as a vast array of contaminants that: have only recently appeared in freshwater systems; are of recent concern because they have been detected at concentrations significantly higher than expected; or pose risks to human and environmental health that may not be fully understood. Examples include pharmaceuticals, industrial and household chemicals, personal care products, metals, surfactants, industrial additives and solvents, pesticides, and manufactured nanomaterials, as well as their transformation products. Many of these substances are used and released continuously into the environment even in very low quantities, and some may cause chronic toxicity, endocrine disruption in humans and aquatic wildlife, and the development of bacterial pathogen resistance.

Scientific knowledge and understanding of potential human and ecosystem health risks posed by emerging pollutants, as well as their presence in water resources and wastewater and their pathways and accumulation in the environment, are still very scarce. Most emerging pollutants are not regulated in environmental, water quality, and wastewater discharge regulations. Hence, there is an urgent need to: strengthen scientific knowledge and adopt appropriate technological and policy approaches to monitor emerging pollutants in water resources and wastewater; assess their potential human health and environmental risks; prevent and control their disposal into water resources and the environment; develop appropriate regulations to address and mitigate, as well as prevent the introduction of, such pollutants in the aquatic environment.

17-19 January 2023

The Online Conference highlighted the ways the world can advance knowledge, research and solutions for managing emerging pollutants to improve and protect water quality in a changing world.

The main objectives of the conference were to:

  • Explore the impacts of emerging pollutants on water resources, considering technical and policy solutions to mitigate and reduce human health and ecological risks, bearing in mind increasing demand on water resources, as well as impacts of global climatic and demographic changes.
  • Identify the appropriate water policies and technologies needed to motivate change in water management, business, and policy priorities to address emerging pollutants.
  • Highlight the bold policy and institutional change needed to support the transformation in water management and policy and across other sectors to ensure better and more reliable water quality to protect human health and ecosystems.
  • Showcase successful efforts of innovative, nature-positive, and technological solutions for improved water quality and reduced water pollution.
  • Examine the life cycle management of emerging pollutants to find solutions not only at end-of-pipe, but also solutions based on a circular economy approach and working with industry, regulators, and local communities, as well as engaging all relevant stakeholders (including under-represented groups).
We encouraged participation by experts from Africa, low-income countries, women, and youth. This conference had a special submission category for young water professionals. 
Thanks to UNESCO‘s support, participation was free for all, and all conference-related materials will be open access.
The overarching theme of the Online Conference was “Emerging Pollutants: Protecting Water Quality for the Health of People and the Environment”. This theme was selected to focus the conference on the intersection of the science-policy interface when addressing emerging pollutants, and steps and mechanisms that must be pursued to protect the health of people and the environment.

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