Researchers with the European Union's Joint Research Centre (JRC) have started investigating how chemical substances migrate from cattle manure to water. The research aims to minimize contamination risks in the context of a circular economy, JRC said.
JRC scientists have developed and tested a new methodology to investigate the fate of chemical substances -- in particular pharmaceuticals, as well as other antimicrobial agents -- administered to cattle. The methodology stems from an exploratory research project that addressed the so-called "circularity of risks" linked to the reuse of materials and recycling in the circular economy, JRC said.
"We, of course, support the principle of the circular economy and the idea of reusing materials, but we want to be sure that when materials are reused, this has no negative consequences on human health or the environment. Our research looks at one way of ensuring this," JRC scientist Bernd Gawlik explained.
The object of the study was cattle manure, which is often used as fertilizer in its natural state without undergoing additional treatment or processing.
The researchers wanted to understand to what extent chemicals such as pharmaceuticals administered to cattle can migrate into water resources through their manure, JRC said in its announcement.
"We treat our wastewater, but manure from animals, which is used as such in agriculture, is often not treated at all. To date, there is not much knowledge about the risk that chemicals such as pharmaceuticals in the manure could pose to our water resources. We also do not understand the role some of them could play in the development of antimicrobial resistance in the environment," Bernd said.
The researchers analyzed samples of manure and soil, as well as samples of groundwater and surface water, for a total of 488 chemicals — from herbicides, fungicides and insecticides to pharmaceuticals, ingredients of personal care products and other industrially used chemicals.
The researchers obtained 20 samples of manure, soil and water at the premises of the University for Agriculture in Nitra (Slovakia).
The samples were then processed and analyzed at JRC using a new analytical approach called "compound fishing," which stems from the JRC Exploratory Research Project CHEMPRINT. The process can assess the presence of 488 chemical compounds, including antibiotics and other chemicals used in veterinary applications and animal husbandry, JRC said.
According to the announcement, the untreated manure samples from animal husbandry contained significant levels of veterinary pharmaceuticals and other chemicals used in animal farming. However, in the processed manure samples, the levels were much lower, although some remained unaffected, JRC said.
The analysis of soil as well as surface and ground water revealed the presence of a large number of chemicals.
"This does not mean that drinking water would necessarily be contaminated as it is treated, but the chemicals could certainly have effects on the environment. Therefore, (we) need to look into this more carefully and use our knowledge to help design solutions. They could include improved animal husbandry methods to reduce the problem at the source, but modern technology could also provide opportunities for more targeted recovery of resources from manure," Bernd explained.
The study was conducted in collaboration with the Slovak University of Agriculture in Nitra. JRC is now conducting a broader EU-wide assessment of processed manure using the new methodology.