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The Ecotox Centre celebrates its 10th anniversary

Inge Werner in Bern on 23 October, at the anniversary event. © Ecotox Centre 2018

Inge Werner in Bern on 23 October, at the anniversary event. © Ecotox Centre 2018

The Ecotox Centre is dedicated to study the environmental effects of chemicals and to develop strategies for minimizing their risk. Based in Dübendorf, the Centre has an antenna at EPFL. It has just celebrated its 10th anniversary. Interview with Inge Werner, director of the Ecotox Centre.

The Ecotox Centre celebrated its 10th anniversary last Tuesday in Bern. Based in Dübendorf, the Centre has an antenna at EPFL focused on soil and sediment ecotoxicology. The scientist Benoît Ferrari supervises the team.

What are the main achievements of the Centre and what are the challenges that it is facing? We asked these questions to Inge Werner, director of the Ecotox Centre.

Why was the Center created 10 years ago?

The Ecotox Centre was founded in 2008 by order of the Swiss Federal Council and Parliament to ensure practice-oriented research, services and continuing education in the field of ecotoxicology in the future. The initiative to establish the centre was prompted by a motion from Green National Councillor Maya Graf. The centre was to secure the future of practice-relevant research, services and further training in the field of ecotoxicology and close part of the gap that had arisen after the closure of the Institute of Toxicology in Schwerzenbach, in 2001.

What are the main achievements of the lab these past 10 years?

The Ecotox Centre regularly uses bioassays to investigate wastewater samples and to evaluate advanced treatment techniques. For example, in the project "Micropoll Strategy", it has used selected bioassays to monitor effects on treated wastewater on aquatic organisms. In this way, the centre contributed to the adoption of a new water protection ordinance that leads to the expansion of Swiss wastewater treatment plants to include treatment with ozone or activated carbon.

In 2015 and 2017, the Ecotox Centre participated in special studies within the National Monitoring Programme for Surface Water Quality (NAWA SPEZ) of the Federal Office for the Environment (FOEN) and the cantonal authorities. The investigations revealed that small Swiss streams in agricultural areas contain many pesticides in concentrations that exceed not only legal limits but also pose a considerable ecotoxicological risk for aquatic organisms, especially when measured chemical mixtures are considered..

In order to assess the ecotoxicological risk of chemicals based on their toxicity, effect-based quality criteria are used as threshold values. The Ecotox Centre has prioritised chemicals of particular concern for FOEN and derived quality criteria for them in accordance with European Union directives. To date, the Ecotox Centre has derived water quality criteria for 88 organic micropollutants, 55 of which are to be implemented in the revised Swiss Water Protection Ordinance.

To date, there are no harmonised methods for assessing sediment quality in Switzerland. The Ecotox Centre has been working with FOEN on a "sediment module" for the "modular stepwise procedure". The goal is to establish a comprehensive method for the ecotoxicological assessment of sediment quality, which includes sampling, sediment quality standards for priority chemicals and the use of bioassays and community indices.

In addition, the Ecotox Centre is working on developing concepts and recommendations for assessing soil quality using ecotoxicological approaches. The Ecotox Centre is currently assisting FOEN and the Federal Office for Agriculture (FOAG) to develop a monitoring strategy for plant protection products in soils.

What are the coming challenges and how the ECOTOX structure will evolve to address them?

The science of ecotoxicology is continuously evolving and new chemicals enter the market on a daily basis. To meet the challenges of the future in environmental monitoring, comprehensive assessment tools based on "omics" approaches (transcriptomics, proteomics, metabolomics) will be needed, along with more data to establish adverse outcome pathways (AOPs). In addition, the use of DNA-based methods for the identification of organism communities or invasive species is expected to become common practice. The development of these tools for practical application will be an important focus of the future work.

On the right: Benoît Ferrari, who leads the Centre Ecotox antenna at EPFL. © Ecotox Centre 2018