In 2021, according to data collected by Le Monde from regional health agencies (ARS), water agencies and local authorities, about 20% of people in metropolitan France – some 12 million – regularly or occasionally received water from their taps that did not comply with quality criteria. This figure was 5.9% in 2020, according to the health ministry.
While the figures reveal the extent of the contamination of water resources by pesticides and their degradation products, they also show severe flaws, persisting for many years, in the monitoring of drinking water.
Most of the data has been available to the Direction Générale de la Santé (DGS, which ensures that France’s health policies are applied) for several months, but has not been aggregated for public release until now. The DGS declined our requests for an interview. Their official presentation, scheduled in the coming weeks, promises to be difficult: in a country where the rare deviations from drinking water quality standards each year are presented as marginal and harmless, the current situation is as alarming as it is unexpected.
The former director general of the ARS Nouvelle-Aquitaine Michel Laforcade, retired since 2020, believes that the health authorities have “failed” on the issue of pesticides and their degradation products, metabolites. “There is a lot of self-censorship in the administration, a kind of inability to look at reality,” he said. “One day, we will have to be accountable. It may not be on the same scale as the contaminated blood affair but it could become the next public health scandal.”
What happened? Why did non-compliant water reach less than 6% of the French population in 2020 and 20% the following year? This is not from any recent, sudden acceleration of pesticide use, but rather a “jolt of knowledge,” as Mickaël Derangeon, vice president of Atlantic’eau, the Loire-Atlantique water works company, put it.
In 2021, responding to a December 2020 instruction from the DGS, regional health agencies began monitoring certain pesticide metabolites that had not previously been subject to testing. Pesticides fragment and recombine with elements in the environment, which results in a whole range of related chemicals. For each phytosanitary product in the market, there can be up to ten metabolites, some of which are considered “relevant” by the health authorities – potentially dangerous – and others “irrelevant.”
Depending on their geology, dominant agricultural practices, and resources (surface or groundwater), differing parts of the country are affected to varying extents. Hauts-de-France is in the worst position, with 65% of the population affected by non-compliance. Brittany (43%), Grand-Est (25.5%), Pays de la Loire (25%), Bourgogne-Franche-Comté (17%) and Normandy (16%) follow among the most affected regions.
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