Organic pollutants threaten aquatic ecosystems in areas of high ecological value in Spain

    A team of scientists led by the CSIC has detected 59 contaminants in the water of natural areas of high ecological value in Spain, including some insecticides and pharmaceuticals with neurotoxic and bioaccumulative effects.

    A team of scientists led by the Instituto de Diagnóstico Ambiental y Estudios del Agua (IDAEA-CSIC) and Research Group in Wildlife Toxicology of the Instituto de Investigación de Recursos Cinegéticos (IREC – CSIC, UCLM, JCCM), both belonging to the Consejo Superior de Investigaciones Científicas (CSIC), in collaboration with the Sociedad Española de Ornitología (SEO/BirdLife), has detected the presence of 59 organic micropollutants of various chemical families in the water of 140 Important Bird and Biodiversity Areas (IBA) in Spain, special protection areas identified by BirdLife International.

    The insecticide chlorpyrifos and the pharmaceutical venlafaxine are the most worrying substances because of their neurotoxic, persistent and bioaccumulative effects in the aquatic fauna of IBAs. The Campiña de Carmona (Seville), the Saladares de Guadalentín (Murcia) and the Hoces del Turia and los Serranos (Valencia) are the IBAs that suffer the greatest impact from this chemical pollution. The results show that agricultural activity and densely urbanized areas are the largest sources of pollution.

    The study, which is part of the “Ciencia Libera” Project led by SEO/BirdLife in partnership with Ecoembes, has been possible thanks to the previous development of a methodological procedure for the large-scale monitoring of polluting chemical substanceswhich has allowed to assess the potential impact of chemical pollution on the conservation of the most pristine aquatic ecosystems


    The Ebro delta is one of the areas of high ecological value studied. The IBA are essential areas for the conservation of biodiversity that are often used as a reference in the designation of protected areas within the Natura 2000 Network (Photo: Silvia Lacorte).

    Results show that in 84% of the 411 water samples collected, there was the presence of pharmaceuticals such as venlafaxine, carbamazepine or tramadol. Caffeine and nicotine were also detected in 76% of the samples analyzed, in addition to pesticides, organophosphorus esters, perfluorinated compounds (components of Gore-Tex®, Teflon, or fire-fighting foams, and used in the food industry and in construction and household products) and benzophenone (sunscreen used in cosmetics and as an additive in the plastics industry).

    "Of the 59 contaminants that we have found, 15 are present at high risk levels for the aquatic ecosystems of the IBA. The most worrying substances that we have detected are the insecticide chlorpyrifos because of its neurotoxic effect, the antidepressant venlafaxine because it affects aquatic organisms and is widely distributed in water, and the perfluorinated compound PFOS with a high bioaccumulation capacity", says Maria Dulsat-Masvidal, pre-doctoral researcher at the IDAEA-CSIC and first author of the study.

    The results of the work indicate that the pollutants come mainly from agricultural and urban activity, but also from effluents from wastewater treatment plants. "The results are consistent with the anthropic pressures identified during the sampling", explains Carlos Ciudad, independent researcher and collaborator of SEO/BirdLife.

    "Chemical pollution can generate harmful effects when it reaches aquatic ecosystems, since it entails the degradation of the habitat and the loss of biodiversity in the most vulnerable areas", says Rafael Mateo, head of the Research Group in Wildlife Toxicology of the IREC.

    The study has identified 52 IBA with levels of contaminants that could put aquatic ecosystems and their conservation at risk. "Although they are not an official figure of protection, the IBA are often used as a reference in the designation of protected areas within the Natura 2000 Network", explains Octavio Infante, head of the Program for the Conservation of Natural Areas of SEO/BirdLife.

    Assessing chemical pollution in this type of natural areas is difficult, thus it is not usually contemplated in environmental monitoring programs. But this work highlights the importance of monitoring aquatic ecosystems in IBA and other natural areas. "With these results, we intend to improve the management of these and other areas of ecological interest and minimize the impact of chemical pollution", concludes Sílvia Lacorte, researcher at the IDAEA-CSIC.

    The scientific publication of this research is available at: