Does Bringing Benefit to Humanity Justify Doing Harm to the Environment?

An interview with Professor Dr. habil. Rita Triebskorn, Steinbeis expert at the Steinbeis Transfer Center for Ecotoxicology and Ecophysiology

Risk perception always depends on public discussion and the extent to which topics are dealt with by the media. Currently, climate change, the energy crisis, and the Russian war of aggression are unquestionably in the spotlight. Despite this, as Professor Dr. Rita Triebskorn knows, potential risks also lie in areas beyond public and political debate. A Steinbeis Entrepreneur, Triebskorn is an expert in ecotoxicology and ecophysiology and deals with the impact of substances such as chemicals on the living environment. TRANSFER magazine talked to the Tübingen professor about the risk posed by dealing with such substances on a daily basis.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.


Hello Professor Triebskorn. Ecotoxicology and ecophysiology – those are challenging areas your Steinbeis Enterprise works in. Could you explain your work to us?

I’m interested in showing how the multitude of chemicals we deal with in our daily lives – such as those that enter the water cycle through our wastewater, or which are washed off from soil and enter rivers  – together with other environmental stressors can affect the health of organisms. I look at the active ingredients or constituents of medicines, pesticides, cosmetics, detergents, and dishwashing products, but also the artificial sweeteners we use in coffee, and disinfectants, which are used in large quantities worldwide, especially in times of Covid-19. Wastewater treatment plants based on conventional standards are often unable to completely remove such substances, so they end up in the effluent and go into the water system. As a result, throughout their lives aquatic organisms are exposed to a variety of such chemicals, all at the same time. These are referred to as trace elements or micropollutants because they occur in very low concentrations in the water cycle, i.e. as traces. Some trace elements are already being found in the groundwater today, and in drinking water, although fortunately they’re mostly still in very low concentrations. So this areais not just important for our environment, but also for us as human beings – or to put it more clearly, it’s a risk.

I consider it an important know-how sharing task of my Steinbeis Enterprise to research this topic and bring the knowledge we acquire into the public domain and politics. That’s why as a member of several committees at the Federal Ministry for the Environment, Nature Conservation, Nuclear Safety, and Consumer Protection, and for the EU, I’m strongly committed to reducing the emission of chemicals into our water bodies and putting possible measures into place to achieve this. The key thing is to introduce a fourth stage of purification at wastewater treatment plants, which can reduce the amount of substances entering bodies of water by up to 80%. Among other things, my Steinbeis Enterprise has developed a monitoring method for LAWA, a joint federal and state working group looking at water issues. The new method takes trace element pollution in water bodies into account when assessing water quality.

We humans influence our environment, very often in a negative way. You study the impacts of environmental pollutants on aquatic and terrestrial organisms. What threats do these pose and what can business and society in general do about such threats?

Of the many chemicals that get mentioned, little is yet known about the damage they might cause to vulnerable organisms. Even less is known about how the multitude of those substances interact with one another or act together. That’s all the more astonishing given that we know that undesirable and unfortunately often unknown side-effects e.g. of pharmaceuticals can occur in humans, for example if we’re also taking different forms of medication. Funding research in this area is therefore an important task for society and in many ways an obligation that should also be borne by industry.

There’s already a strong body of data on some substances, such as the painkiller diclofenac, or certain antidepressants, which proves that concentrations of such chemicals in the nanogram per liter range are capable of harming the health and behavior of fish and other aquatic organisms. More intensive consideration should therefore be given to the trade-off between benefits to humans and harm to the environment in the future, and that should include consideration from chemical producers.

Given the increasing threat to our water resources, the German government has written a National Water Strategy, which is based on years of discussion surrounding water issues. That discussion actively involved representatives and stakeholders from very different areas, including myself. The National Water Strategy sets out future packages of measures for water protection. Of major importance is the introduction of the aforementioned fourth stage of processing at wastewater treatment plants.

In addition, a federal trace element strategy has been written as part of the government’s stakeholder dialog process. This includes measures that have been and still are being adopted to reduce emissions of trace elements into the environment, with the support of numerous stakeholders from industry, the authorities, and science. Also, in keeping with this at the beginning of this year a federal center for trace elements was founded in Dessau. I’ve also been appointed as a member of an expert panel for assessing the importance of trace elements.

Not only politicians, but also each and every one of us can help reduce the number of chemicals entering the environment by being more careful about how we use medicines, personal care products, cleaning agents, detergents, and cosmetics. It’s not difficult to achieve the same effects by halving the volume of a product we use, such as a shower gel, and this can help save the environment and the amount of money you spend. And under no circumstances should medicine leftovers be disposed of in the toilet or sink. The disposal methods for pharmaceuticals differ from state to state. The Federal Ministry of Education and Research provides plenty of information on this on the internet.

Aside from chemicals posing a threat to the environment, there are also other stress factors harming fish and other creatures. What other threats exist?

These days, organisms in our environment have to cope with numerous stressors, so-called multiple stressors, which often act upon them simultaneously. In addition to thousands of chemicals, these include macro- and microplastic pollution, competition from neophytes, and extreme weather conditions due to climate change. Hot summers like the one we experienced this year have severe consequences for aquatic organisms. For a start, entire sections of water bodies can dry up, but also high temperatures result in low oxygen levels with strong concentrations of substances in the remaining water, making it difficult for organisms to survive.

But it’s not only drought that places a burden on aquatic and terrestrial ecosystems; climate change is also leading to periods of heavy rainfall. These inflict physical and hydraulic stress and result in the translocation of pesticides from agricultural land. There are also more frequent discharges from storm water overflow basins and as a result of that, untreated wastewater is discharged into water bodies. The Oder River disaster in the summer, which resulted in the death of roughly 200 tons of fish and countless other aquatic organisms, is a dramatic illustration of what happens when multiple biotic and abiotic stress factors come together in a delicate aquatic ecosystem. My Steinbeis Enterprise also champions this topic on behalf of the Water Chemistry Society at the German Chemical Society, particularly on the specialist committee for (eco)toxicological impacts, which I chair. My aim by being involved in this work is to ensure environmental risk assessments carried out on chemicals give more attention to the issue of mixed pollutants in the environment, as well as multiple stressors.

You also look at the impact and side effects of plant protection agents, because as a topic, it’s becoming increasingly important to the area of global food production. What do you consider the potential areas of action here?

Reducing pesticide use in agriculture is essential for the survival of our terrestrial and aquatic ecosystems. But at the same time, some crop protection products are essential for food production – and incidentally, that also applies to organically produced products. The concept of integrated pest management already demonstrated many years ago that there are more environmentally friendly ways to use pesticides. This isn’t about stopping pesticide use. But there do need to be changes in how they’re used, in terms of quality and quantity, not just to match the needs of humans, but also those of the environment. This entails using substances that are as degradable and as kind to beneficial organisms as possible, it entails restricting the duration of use, and it entails optimizing application volumes.

The best tools for implementing this vision are financial incentives to engage in sustainable agriculture. The common agricultural policy of the EU has been stipulating and continues to stipulate such options, but in my opinion this hasn’t yet been done rigorously enough. The intended way forward is highly commendable, however. In general though, if agricultural products are no longer approved in Germany, due to risks posed to humans and the environment, exporting them should be prohibited – which is also currently being considered by the Ministry of the Environment. Such chemicals, which are referred to as obsolete pesticides, are still being distributed internationally through export channels, and eventually they end up back on our plates and in the water cycle.

Further Information


Prof. Dr. habil. Rita Triebskorn (interviewee)
Steinbeis Entrepreneur
Steinbeis Transfer Center Ecotoxicology and Ecophysiology (Rottenburg)