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France’s environment and agriculture ministries have announced that pesticide levels in one-third of waters used as sources for drinking water were high enough to require special treatment to remove the chemicals, according to data analysed from 1997 and 1998.

The governmental French Environment Institute found pesticides at two micrograms per litre or more in 34% of samples with a further 10% having at least one microgram of pesticide per litre. The two most commonly used herbicides, atrazine and diuron, were also found to pose the greatest risk to water supplies.

As a result, on 24 August the ministries announced an 83 million FF (£7.75 million) joint plan to combat pesticide contamination mainly at a regional level by concentrating efforts on catchment basins where the problem is deemed to be most serious. Sixty-eight million FF (£6.35 million) will allow town halls to work together with regional protection, forestry and agriculture agencies to determine the causes of water pollution. An action plan will then be produced for each basin attempting to prevent pesticides from entering water systems and limiting their useage.

The remainder of the money will be spent at the national level to develop alternatives to these products, to set up a programme to recuperate pesticide containers and unused pesticides, and to study the obligatory control of them. Better information will be available to inform the public and professionals of more effective pesticide use.

However, tackling any area of water contamination promises to be difficult. Billions of francs thrown at tackling agricultural pollution has seen no improvement in water quality, and farmers are by no means the only ones to use pesticides extensively. Local authorities use them to kill roadside weeds, the railway company use them on track, and millions of households use them for gardening.

One beacon of hope for the government is the application of a tax on polluting activities, TGAP, which has covered pesticides from the beginning of this year, and which the government says, “should allow the development of less polluting substances”. Pesticides are divided into seven categories according to the toxicological danger they present where category one supports no tax while category seven is taxed at a level of 11 000FF (£1,000) / ton.

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