Indicator Assessment

Industrial pollutant releases to water in Europe

Indicator Assessment
Prod-ID: IND-551-en
  Also known as: INDP 005
Published 21 Jun 2021 Last modified 21 Jun 2021
1 min read

Between 2010 and 2019, industrial releases to Europe’s water bodies of pollutants that are damaging to human health and the environment declined overall. Releases of heavy metals declined significantly, while emissions of nitrogen and phosphorus, which cause eutrophication, declined to a lesser extent. In the same period, the economic value of industry increased by 14%, in line with the EU policy objective of supporting industrial growth while decreasing industrial emissions. However, data gaps make it difficult to assess industry’s contribution to overall water pollution in Europe.

Industrial releases of pollutants to water from industry in the EU-27


Water is a valuable resource that is under pressure in Europe, with only 40% of surface water bodies being in good ecological status and 38% in good chemical status (EEA, 2019a). Industrial activity leads to the release of pollutants to water, including total organic carbon (TOC) and compounds that contain nutrients such as nitrogen and phosphorous, which can cause eutrophication, and heavy metals such as Cd, Pb, Hg and Ni, which also have detrimental impacts on the environment and human health.

EU industrial policy strives to reduce pollutant emissions while supporting growth and competitiveness (EC, undated). Legislation, such as the Water Framework Directive (WFD) (EU, 2000) or the Industrial Emissions Directive (IED), aims to protect Europe’s water bodies from industrial emissions, among other things, thus supporting this goal. Monitoring changes in industrial emissions to water is key to tracking progress towards achieving industrial policy objectives.

Overall, industrial releases to water were lower in 2019 than in 2010: emissions of heavy metals (Cd, Hg, Pb and Ni) decreased significantly, largely as a result of decreasing releases of Pb, and emissions of nitrogen and phosphorus also decreased, although to a much lesser extent. This partly reflects the positive influence of European policy and improved pollution abatement technology on industrial emissions to water. These emission reductions were achieved despite a 14% increase in the value that European industry generated for the economy, measured as gross value added, indicating that, although European industry is growing, it is becoming less emission intensive, in line with the objectives of the EU industrial strategy (EC, 2020).

Industrial emissions to water are reported under the European Pollutant Transfer and Release Register (E-PRTR) (EEA, 2019b). Although this covers the 45 substances included in the WFD’s list of priority substances, the data quality and consistency of reporting across countries are sufficient for only a small selection of water pollutants, which does not include numerous organic pollutants, pesticides and emerging compounds, such as pharmaceuticals and microplastics. Improving and widening the scope of reporting to the E-PRTR would allow for a more meaningful analysis of the impacts of industrial emissions on Europe’s water bodies (EEA, 2019a).

Water pollutant releases changes from 2010 to 2019 for the EU Member States

Note: The table shows the scale of percentage changes in pollutant releases to water in EU-27 Member States from 2010 to 2019.

Industrial releases to water are very complex, with different underlying environmental issues at stake. Total organic carbon (TOC), nitrogen and phosphorus are three key parameters of overall pollution in water releases, with a focus on the impact these pollutants can have in the functioning of water ecosystems, particularly the above mentioned eutrophication phenomenon. As the table in Figure 2 shows, progress across countries in containing these releases is mixed in terms of percentage change between 2010 and 2019. While this reflects, in certain instances, better monitoring of releases, it confirms the remaining need to better treat these releases in line with the objectives of EU water policies.

Heavy metals have been included in the table as they are a good proxy of heavier industry releases of a more toxic nature. Waste water treatment infrastructure is generally not designed to address these pollutants and, therefore, they indicate industrial emissions that were not sufficiently abated at source. Reporting to the European Pollutant Release and Transfer Register indicates a general consistent progress across countries, with some exceptions, as the table depicts. However, more efforts are needed to contribute to improving the ecological and chemical status of European water bodies.

Supporting information

Indicator definition

This indicator tracks trends of industrial emissions of selected water pollutants. The indicator includes releases of certain heavy metals (Cadmium, Nickel, Mercury and Lead), nutrients (Nitrogen and Phosphorus) and a global parameter to indicate the load of organic matter (total organic carbon). These trends are overlaid to the trend in gross value added by industry, as an indicator of the economic contribution of the sector. 

The aggregated EU-27 trends feature in Figure 1 while country specific trend changes are offered in Figure 2.

The geographical coverage comprises the 27 EU Member States (EU-27) (Austria, Belgium, Bulgaria, Croatia, Cyprus, Czechia, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Ireland, Italy, Latvia, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Malta, the Netherlands, Poland, Portugal, Romania, Slovakia, Slovenia, Spain, and Sweden).

The temporal coverage is 2010-2019. Data were reported to the European Pollutant Release and Transfer Register (E-PRTR).


Emissions — percentage change with reference to 2010

Gross value added — percentage change with reference to 2010


Policy context and targets

Context description

Anthropogenic emissions of heavy metals, nutrients and organic matter contribute to a wide range of detrimental effects for the environment and human health. While many human activities contribute to these emissions, industry and waste water treatment operations are significant sources.

The European Pollutant Release and Transfer Register (E-PRTR) requires industry operators to submit, among other data, values for direct releases of pollutants into water across 91 pollutants. Additionally, large waste water treatment plants also report to the E-PRTR. These collect water from sewer systems that contain effluents both from industry, commercial, residential and other activities. While they are designed to reduce pollution, their efficiency is not complete and the E-PRTR captures the remaining pollution they release into water ecosystems.

Protection of water ecosystems from industrial emissions is regulated mainly via the water policy and the industrial emission policy. The former has two key pieces of EU law that are most relevant: 1) the mechanisms of priority substances and 2) the waste water treatment plant Directive. This EU legislation imposes a case-by-case permit for large industrial operators, which contains emission limit values to water. If the industry operator releases water to the sewerage system, provisions as to how and which emission levels are acceptable are also foreseen.

This indicator is useful to capture how these mechanisms contribute to a progressive reduction in the final releases to water ecosystems in Europe. Due to the way the reporting mechanisms are designed and the fact that industry is often connected to a sewerage system, this indicator cannot distinguish releases that are fully generated in an industry context, from those that are mixed with other sources (e.g. commercial or residential).


No targets have been specified

Related policy documents

No related policy documents have been specified



Methodology for indicator calculation

Queries are applied to the Industrial Emissions Database (where the E-PRTR is included) to extract and aggregate emissions reported individually for each operator in Europe to produce Figures 1 and 2. Emissions are aggregated at country and European level, indexed to 2010 levels and a trend line is then constructed.

For Fig. 1, the gross added value is indexed to 2010 levels and a trend line constructed.

Gap filling was performed to complete data missing for some countries in the last years of the timeline. Future versions will include more complete datasets as countries resolve these issues as time passes by.

While the E-PRTR contains data since 2007, the earlier years are incomplete and of lesser quality. This has led to the indicator showing data starting from 2010.



EC, undated, ‘Industrial policy’ ( accessed 5 October 2020.

EC, 2020, ‘Making Europe’s businesses future-ready: A new industrial strategy for a globally competitive, green and digital Europe’ ( accessed 5 October 2020.

EEA, 2019a,Industrial waste water treatment — Pressures on Europe’s environment, EEA Report No 23/2018, European Environment Agency ( accessed 4 April 2019.

EEA, 2019b, ‘The European Pollutant Release and Transfer Register (E-PRTR), Member States reporting under Article 7 of Regulation (EC) No 166/2006’, European Environment Agency ( accessed 5 October 2020.


Policy references

EU, 2000, Directive 2000/60/EC of the European Parliament and of the Council of 23 October 2000 establishing a framework for community action in the field of water policy (OJ L 327, 22.12.2000, p. 1-73).

Methodology for gap filling

No methodology for gap filling has been specified. Probably this info has been added together with indicator calculation.

Methodology references



Methodology uncertainty

No uncertainty has been specified

Data sets uncertainty

No uncertainty has been specified

Rationale uncertainty

No uncertainty has been specified

Data sources

Other info

DPSIR: Pressure
Typology: Descriptive indicator (Type A - What is happening to the environment and to humans?)
Indicator codes
  • INDP 005
Frequency of updates
Updates are scheduled once per year
EEA Contact Info


Geographic coverage

Temporal coverage


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