Time Can Heal Wounds – Effort Prevents Injuries

Sabrina de Boer (ESR9)

Even though NOWELTIES is a project funded by the European Union, I am currently working in Switzerland at the FHNW in Basel as part of a research secondment. Despite not being part of the EU, Basel is one of the most European cities I have been to. When you walk across the history-loaded streets, you are surrounded by people speaking English, French, German, Spanish, Italian, Portuguese, Dutch, and every language you can imagine. These people are mostly not tourists, but employees from all over the world who have chosen Basel as a (temporary) home to thrive both in their careers and personal development. Basel is also the center of the three-border region between Switzerland, France, and Germany, shaped by one of the ten largest European rivers, the Rhine.

Thirty-five years ago, this vital lifeline was severely damaged when a storage hall for chemicals caught fire and 10-15 million liters of contaminated firefighting water, mostly containing insecticides, blood red colored, were released into the Rhine. Up to 400 kilometers downstream, dead eel and other fish were washed up the banks. Even in Lobith, a Dutch city located 700 km downstream, elevated concentrations of the insecticide Disulfoton were detected [1]. The population of Basel was furious about the limited information the company released about the environmental and health risks, stemming not only from the polluted river but also from the toxic fumes released during the fire.

The increasing public pressure led to the implementation of stricter laws. The Convention on the protection of the Rhine was signed in 1999, entrusting the International Commission for the Protection of the Rhine to implement monitoring and enforce prevention and mitigation strategies [2]. Surprisingly, this association was already founded in 1950, even before the foundation of the European Coal and Steel Community, one of the precursors of the European Union. This shows that fruitful international cooperation does not necessarily have to be driven by economic interests and that we should valorize more the non-economic benefits of the European Union.

It is now almost unthinkable that the catastrophe took place less than a kilometer away from the institute where I am currently working on developing new catalytic materials for wastewater treatment. Today, the Rhine is a primary source of drinking water for more than 30 million people in France, Germany, and the Netherlands [3]. In the summertime, people in Basel can enjoy a swim in crystal clear water. A program to resettle salmons in the Rhine is showing first success. Switzerland is currently the only country regulating the release of organic micropollutants from wastewater treatment plants as important point sources for the “everyday catastrophe” regarding the release of pharmaceuticals, hormones, and industrial chemicals into our rivers, lakes, and oceans. Even though additional treatment steps have increased the costs, the measures are widely accepted by the population [4].

This example shows how impactful public protest and public action can be for the way we live with and within our environment. We as researchers are trying to find the best solutions to reach our common goals, prosperity for all people, not only economically but also environmentally.

[1] https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s11356-009-0156-y
[2] https://www.iksr.org/en/icpr/legal-basis/convention
[3] https://www.iksr.org/en/topics/uses/drinking-water
[4] (only abstract and supporting information available free of charge)                                                                                                         https://pubs.acs.org/doi/abs/10.1021/es502338j?casa_token=ta7on2Z1DzUAAAAA:v6KXz12F1zz1a30IatXfPgTKre6NwIbY5au3j20qo2_6wIQO8RU2LnYOW-laLise8DfI98JFw4zhaYnQ
(Picture sources)