TESTATA Improvement Research Programmes

Hera's commitment to quality and beyond: improvement and research programmes

GroupSustainabilityThematic reportsIn good watersHera's commitment to quality and beyond: improvement and research programmes


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In this report:

Improvement Research Programmes

The Hera Group's technological research and innovation projects investigate new aspects of the integrated water service.

Hera continues its work on Emerging Contaminants to improve water quality

In 2018, Hera continued to investigate the field of “Emerging Contaminants”. These are biologically active substances of anthropic origin such as medicines, psychoactive substances associated with drug dependency and relative metabolites, and personal treatment products: their presence in water is a key environmental issue. Drinking water standards (Italian Legislative Decree 31/2001) do not set limits for these substances. Therefore, these parameters are not regulated and monitored as per art. 4 of Italian Legislative Decree 31/2001 which states that water must not contain micro-organisms, parasites or other substances in such quantities that endanger human health and that the most recent scientific knowledge of product quality and risk to human health, were no specific legal requirements are in place.

Monitoring is ongoing of 20 substances considered of "priority" interest in the categories of polyalkylphenols, oestrogens and perfluorinated acids (PFAS), at the Pontelagoscuro drinking water plant in Ferrara.

The analyses carried out in 2018 on the water coming out of the Pontelagoscuro plant in Ferrara showed the presence of 20 substances with very low concentrations, as listed in the following table.

At the moment, as already explained, there are no regulatory limits for these 20 parameters. Only for perfluorinated acids (PFAS) the Ministry of Health recommends “adequate water contamination prevention measures at source and, at plant level, implementation of adsorption and/or filtration via membranes proven to be effective for PFAS removal along drinking water production/distribution lines since the application of such technology is believed to ensure the following performance (target) levels in treated waters: PFOA: ≤500 nanograms per litre, PFOS: ≤30 nanograms per litre, other PFAS: ≤500 nanograms per litre".

The Istituto Superiore di Sanità (prot. 11/08/2015-0024565) has defined supplemental performance levels, attributing PFBA and PFBS with a value of 500 nanograms per litre.

The European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) has established tolerable daily doses (estimates of the quantity of substance that can be ingested over a lifetime without appreciable health risks) of 150 nanograms per kilogram of body weight per day for PFOS and 1,500 nanograms per kilogram of body weight per day for PFOA. According to the EFSA, therefore, a person of 50 kilograms could ingest 7,500 nanograms of PFOS and 75,000 nanograms of PFOA. These quantities could be ingested by drinking 250 litres and 150 litres of tap water per day respectively with concentrations equal to the limit recommended by the Ministry of Health. However, the measured concentrations of both substances in the water leaving the Pontelagoscuro plant are over 90% lower than the level recommended by the Ministry of Health. Therefore it would take almost 4,000 litres of tap water a day to reach the maximum tolerable daily intake according to EFSA.


  Substance No. of analyses carried out No. of analyses in which the substance was detected Average value measured (ng/L) Indication of the Ministry of Health and/or the Italian National Health Institute (ng/L)
polyalkylphenols 4-n-nonylphenol (NP) 3 0 <1  
4-t-octylphenol (t-OP) 3 0 <5  
bisphenol A (BPA) 3 0 <5  
4-octylphenol (OP) 3 0 <1  
estrogen 17-a-etinylestradiol (EE2) 3 0 <1  
b-estradiol (E2) 3 0 <1  
estriol (E3) 3 0 <1  
extron (E1) 3 0 <1  
perfluorinated acids (PFAS) perfluorobutyric acid (PFBA) 20 9 68  
perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) 65 47 5 ≤500 ng/L
perfluorooctanoicosulfonate acid (PFOS) 65 12 2 ≤30 ng/L
perfluoro butane sulfonate (PFBS) 65 15 9  
Sum of other perfluorinated compounds (other PFAS)* 65 7 6 ≤500 ng/L

* The total parameter of other PFASs includes at least the following compounds: PFPeA, PFHxA, PFHpA, PFHxS, PFNA, PFDeA, PFUnA, PFDoA (Italian National Health Institute’s opinion for Veneto Region of 11/08/2015).


Concerning the presence of perfluorinated acids (PFAS) in the aqueducts of Veneto operated by AcegasApsAmga, the results of the monthly controls carried out and available on the websitewww.acegasapsamga.itsince April 2018 and related to 16 parameters, found values lower than the "performance levels" (target) defined by the ISS (Italian National Health Institute ) at national level (less than or equal to 530 nanograms per litre for PFOA+PFOS not exceeding 30 nanograms per litre and less than or equal to 500 nanograms per litre for the sum of the other PFAS) and the limits set by the Veneto Region with the Resolution of the Regional Council no. 1590 of 3/10/2017 (90 nanograms or less per litre for PFOA and PFOS of which PFOS does not exceed 30 nanograms per litre and 300 nanograms or less per litre for the sum of the other PFAS).

The control system put in place by Hera involves monitoring pesticides (herbicides included) for which Italian Legislative Decree 31/2001 establishes values of 0.5 micrograms per litre for total pesticides and 0.1 micrograms per litre for each active ingredient.

During 2018, in Emilia‑Romagna, Hera performed 270 checks of the water it provides for 38 pesticides at 91 sampling points (38 at plant outflows, 17 in tanks and 36 along the distribution networks).

In most cases the results of the checks carried out indicate values below the instrument detection threshold (<0.02 micrograms per litre) and in only 3 cases values that are still largely within the regulatory limits, confirming the quality of the water at source and the validity of the treatment processes. Water sources potentially more exposed to the risk of pesticide contamination are put through an active carbon filtration process that removes them effectively.

All results of tests for pesticides were constantly below the total pesticides value of 0.5 micrograms per litre and 0.1 micrograms per litre per individual active substance.

Up to 2015 Hera tested for a broad range of active substances but not glyphosate and its derivative, Ampa, as attention has only very recently been focused on these substances. Glyphosate is the world's most widely used herbicide and its use has increased rapidly following the development of genetically modified crops that are resistant to the substance. It is used on arboreal and herbaceous crops yet is also used for non-agricultural industrial and civil purposes (e.g. embankments, roadside verges).

At this time the risk classification for this substance is still uncertain and the scientific community has yet to issue agreed guidelines.

In the meantime, in the absence of specific instructions from the relative authorities (Region, Local Health Authority), again in 2018 Hera set up a monitoring plan. This monitoring was performed at 17 drinking water sampling points. Test results have always been below the lower instrumental detection threshold (0.01 micrograms per litre for glyphosate and 0.05 micrograms per litre for Ampa).

The micro and nanoplastics present in water

The problem of plastic degradation and its presence in the environment - also in the form of “micro” and “nano-plastics” - has been brought to the public's attention over the last few years following the publication of several articles on the Internet and in the press.

The term microplastics refers to very small particles of plastic material (fibres, fragments, pellets, films, beads). The EFSA defines microplastics as particles with a size of between 0.1 and 5,000 microns (µm), that is, up to 5 mm. Below this size range the term nanoplastics is used.

At present there are no standards concerning contamination of food products by micro and nanoplastics, although the remarks made by the EFSA on the matter in 2016 are significant. Among other things, the report indicates that data on the presence, toxicity and ultimate fate (i.e. what happens after digestion) of such materials is insufficient for risk assessment purposes, especially in the case of nanoplastics.

To date, neither the European regulation (Directive 98/83/EC as amended) nor the Italian regulation that implements it (Legislative Decree 31/2001 as amended) set limits to the presence of microplastics in drinking water.

Consequently, neither the providers' internal controls nor external controls by local health authorities involve testing for microplastics.

Nevertheless, Hera believes that any development of analytical techniques for the sampling and detection of microplastics should be followed attentively so that such methods can be used internally or externally if required in the future. More specifically, the Hera lab has initiated contacts with CNR–ISMAR in Venice, the Sentinel4Marine Plastic Waste project research centre.

As said, despite the absence of both regulations and standard analysis procedures, it can however be noted from a laboratory perspective, that the endocrine disruptor analyses that the laboratory conducts on purification plant outlets (such as the bisphenol A (BPA) from plastic and packaging, as mentioned above) have not again in 2018 yielded any significant findings as indicated before.

While there is no evidence that microplastics pose a health risk to the quality of the water it supplies, Hera nevertheless aims to monitor the situation carefully and keep pace with any new developments.

Hera's experiments concerning Water Safety Plans

In 2018, Hera concluded its activities for the implementation of 2 Safety Plans based on the guidelines for the application of the principles of the Water Safety Plans introduced by the WHO, drawn up by the Istituto Superiore di Sanità (Italian National Health Institute).

EC directive n. 1787/2015 of 6 October 2015 - which amended Annexes II and III of directive 98/83/EC establishing minimum requisites for the programmed control of waste for human consumption and the analysis methods for the various parameters - has introduced the Water Safety Plans method for organising prevention and control in a way that improves water quality. Italy implemented this Directive with the Decree of the Ministry of Health of 14 June 2017.

Hera has signed a research contract with the Istituto Superiore di Sanità to develop in the two-year period 2017-2018 two complete Water Safety Plans, consistent with the Water Safety Plan methodology, for two of the water systems it operates: the one serving the Municipality of San Giovanni in Persiceto and the one serving the Municipalities of the Imola District (Bagnara di Romagna, Castel Guelfo, Castel San Pietro Terme, Conselice, Dozza, Imola, Medicina, Mordano, Sant'Agata sul Santerno). The two aqueduct systems comprise 4 supply zones: San Giovanni in Persiceto, industrial aqueduct in Imola, Dozza and Imola.

In 2017, development of the plans began by setting up a multidisciplinary work team (Hera, the Italian National Health Institute, the Emilia-Romagna regional government, local health authorities, ARPAE, Atersir, the municipalities and involved asset holding companies), data collection and information for risk assessment, and inspections of plants. On 8 May 2019 Hera organised a workshop on the subject at its Bologna headquarters, with speeches by representatives from the Ministry of Health, the Italian National Health Institute, the Emilia-Romagna regional government and ARPAE, during which Hera presented its experience.


Piani di sicurezza dell'acqua

In 2018, the joint efforts of Friuli Venezia Giulia's water service operators continued, leading to the identification of common guidelines for the preparation of Water Safety Plans: the ISS (Istituto Superiore di Sanità, the Italian National Health Institute) validated and appreciated the work carried out so far by the group.

In Veneto, even if there is no common discussion table between operators and the Region, AcegasApsAmga has set up a work team for the Water Safety Plan.

In the 2019-2020 period, the 229 check-lists will be drawn up and identified in order to define the main risk matrices of the aqueducts in the areas of Padua and Trieste.

In 2018, development projects concerning the "Partnership Agreement for Applied Research” also continued. Signed by Hera, Iren and Smat, this agreement promotes technological research and innovation.

In this context, Hera coordinated the project "Material recovery from sewage treatment plants: phosphorus as an example of recovery in a circular economy".

The project has enabled us to gain insight on recovery processes, and validate the available commercial technologies.

A survey of the equipment base, aimed at identifying units with the most promising characteristics for implementing recovery technologies, then led to the development of feasibility studies for 4 relevant plants, two of which (Bologna IDAR and Rimini Santa Giustina) are operated by Hera.

1These concern the following pesticides, co-defined with local health authorities: 2.4-DDT; 4.4`-DDD; 4.4`-DDT; alachlor; aldrin; alpha-endosulfan; alpha-hexachlorcyclohexane; ametryn; atrazine; desethyl-atrazine; beta-endosulfan; beta-hexachlorcyclohexane; chlorpyriphos; delta-hexachlorcyclohexane; diazinon; dieldrin; endrin; heptachlor; heptachlor epoxy; hexachlorobenzene; lindane; linuron; malathion; metolachlor; molinate; oxadiazon; parathion-ethyl; parathion-methyl; pendimenthalin; pirimicarb; prometrine; propachlor; propazine; simazine; terbuthylazine; desethyl-terbuthylazine; terbutryn; trifluralin.

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