More Than Just Clean Water


"Residue from medications are polluting waste water more and more," summarizes Professor Johannes Pinnekamp from the RWTH Institute of Environmental Engineering (ISA). It is expected that the use of pharmaceuticals, among other things, is increasing again due to demographic change.


"Waste water from hospitals, nursing homes, and medical centers in particular contain pharmaceutical agents that are not completely eliminated in traditional treatment plants and thus remain in the water cycle. The effect of many such substances on humans and the environment has already been proven," states the Aachen researcher. "Waste water from health institutions also contains pathogens." There are open ended questions about the amount of substances in the water, the interaction of these pathogens with medication residue in waste water, the development of multiresistent germs, and treatment possibilities for the waste water.

The cooperative research project "SAUBER+: Innovative Konzepte und Technologien für die separate Behandlung von Abwasser aus Einrichtungen des Gesundheitswesens" (SAUBER+: Innovative Concepts and Technologies for the separate treatment of waste water from healthcare institutions) held a kick-off event to start work on these issues. The three year project, under the leadership of Professor Pinnekamp, is being funded with about 3 million euros by the Federal Ministry for Education and Research (BMBF) through the funding measure "Risk management of new pollutants and toxins in the water cycle."

Central Components of the Project Include:

  • transdisciplinary risk characterization of waste water streams from nursing homes, retirement homes, hospices, medical centers, and clinics, for people and the environment
  • investigation and optimization of technology for eliminating medications and germs from these waste water streams
  • innovative communication and education measures to spread awareness and sensitization to all those involved (doctors, pharmacists, caregivers, patients, relatives, etc.)

With the help of concrete areas for application, all results will be developed into measures for institutions, catchment areas and specific target groups to prevent the entry of pharmaceutical substances and toxins into the environment. With this as a foundation, recommendations will be formulated for innovative strategies and technologies for changes in operational processes and for separate treatment of waste water from health institutions.

The interdisciplinary project team is made up of experts from six research institutions and five practicing partners: In addition to the ISA, the Institute for Sustainable Chemistry and Environmental Chemistry (INUC, Leuphana University of Lüneburg) and the Institute for Environmental Medicine and Hospital Hygiene (IUK, University Hospital Freiburg) within the natural sciences are also working on the project. Project tasks that are primarily social sciences oriented are being worked on by the Institute for Social-Ecological Research (ISOE, Frankfurt am Main), the Institute for Environmental Communication (INFU, Leuphana University of Lüneburg), and the non-profit organization for communication and cooperation research, DIALOGIK (Stuttgart).

Partners in practice include the Emschergenossenschaft in Essen, Ortenau Hospital and the companies Carbon Services and Consulting GmbH (Vettweiß), Microdyn-Nadir GmbH (Wiesbaden), and UMEX GmbH (Dresden). Through the continuous incorporation of important players within healthcare, science, the economy, and society into the cooperative project, the practicability and acceptance of the developed solutions and the spread of the project results are greatly increased. As Professor Pinnekamp adds, "In this cooperation, we are confident we will determine ways and possibilities for refraining from polluting our environment further with waste and residue from medications."