Emerging risks from ballast water treatment: The run-up to the International Ballast Water Management Convention
Uptake and discharge of ballast water by ocean-going ships contribute to the worldwide spread of aquatic invasive species, with negative impacts on the environment, economies, and public health. The International Ballast Water Management Convention aims at a global answer. The agreed standards for ballast water discharge will require ballast water treatment. Systems based on various physical and/or chemical methods were developed for on-board installation and approved by the International Maritime Organization. Most common are combinations of high-performance filters with oxidizing chemicals or UV radiation. A well-known problem of oxidative water treatment is the formation of disinfection by-products, many of which show genotoxicity, carcinogenicity, or other long-term toxicity. In natural biota, genetic damages can affect reproductive success and ultimately impact biodiversity. The future exposure towards chemicals from ballast water treatment can only be estimated, based on land-based testing of treatment systems, mathematical models, and exposure scenarios. Systematic studies on the chemistry of oxidants in seawater are lacking, as are data about the background levels of disinfection by-products in the oceans and strategies for monitoring future developments. The international approval procedure of ballast water treatment systems compares the estimated exposure levels of individual substances with their experimental toxicity. While well established in many substance regulations, this approach is also criticised for its simplification, which may disregard critical aspects such as multiple exposures and long-term sub-lethal effects. Moreover, a truly holistic sustainability assessment would need to take into account factors beyond chemical hazards, e.g. energy consumption, air pollution or waste generation.