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Study: road pollution is contaminating London's rivers

  • Study: road pollution is contaminating London's rivers
  • New research identifies London roads making highest contribution to river pollution and poor water quality.

About the entity

Mayor of London
Official website of Mayor of London, Sadiq Khan, and the 25 London Assembly Members.
Schneider Electric
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Pollution from the surface of London’s roads is posing a significant risk to rivers in the capital, a pioneering new study has found.

Research funded by City Hall, Transport for London and the Environment Agency found that all of the roads involved in the study have the potential to damage local rivers. Modelling has shown that roads where heavy goods vehicles (HGVs) regularly apply their brakes are often the worst affected, usually around junctions, roundabouts and traffic lights. The most polluting roads identified in the study include:

  • Junction of North Circular (A406) and Abbey Road, Alperton
  • North Circular at Chingford
  • Slip road to the A40 (B456) by Ealing Sports Ground
  • Jenkins Lane, Beckton​

This is the first time that dedicated research has been carried out to identify sources of this specific type of pollution, known as road run-off. Road run-off occurs when pollutants that settle on the surface of the road - such as residue from oil spills, as well as tyre and brake wear from vehicles - build up during dry weather and are then washed into rivers and streams when it rains. The problem is likely to increase with the effects of a changing climate.

Toxic metals, hydrocarbons found in fuel and other pollutants washed into water pose a significant threat to river health. Road run-off can carry over 300 pollutants, causing short and long-term damage including killing fish and even discolouring water turning the river water black.

Many of London's rivers are polluted, with only one of London’s 41 bodies of water (the Carshalton Arm, source of the River Wandle) classed as ‘good’ under the EU Water Framework Directive. The River Brent, spanning almost 18 miles, and the River Lea, spanning 42 miles, are likely to be the worst affected by polluted road run-off.

Whilst the Mayor has no direct powers over water quality, his team at City Hall has been working with partners on this new research to help drive action, including using sustainable drainage - such as planting vegetation - and creating wetlands to help filter out the worst pollutants before they reach our rivers.

These solutions also provide other benefits including reducing flood risk, greater biodiversity and improving air quality. 

Mayor of London, Sadiq Khan said: “This report provides clear evidence that pollution from the surface of London’s roads is posing a significant risk to our rivers. We’re working with partners to find solutions that prevent water contamination, but the Government must step up to provide the Environment Agency and highways authorities with the appropriate funding for these measures to properly protect the capital’s rivers.”

John Bryden, Head of Improving Rivers at Thames21 said: “Pollution from roads is one of the least understood and most complex forms of river pollution. This pioneering research can finally help us identify the worst roads, and then start taking action to deal with this urgent problem.’

Christina Calderato, TfL’s Head of Transport Strategy and Planning, said: “We want London’s rivers to be cleaner and are working to reduce the impact of runoff from roads. This study will help us to work out where both we and the other authorities responsible for roads in London could intervene to make runoff cleaner and improve water quality in rivers for everyone.”

Simon Moody, Environment Agency Area Director for London said: “We welcome this report to better understand the impacts of road run-off on the water environment. We will continue to support, advise and work alongside local authorities, transport operators and others in reducing the impact of London’s road network, building on our success in improving water quality across London.” 

Rob Shore, Head of UK Programmes at wetland charity WWT, said: “It is clear that road runoff is a major source of river pollution across the UK, especially in our urban areas, killing aquatic wildlife and making our towns and cities less hospitable for people. We welcome the report’s investigation into this important issue, and strongly support the report’s recognition of wetlands and sustainable drainage systems as a key part of the solution. Creating new urban wetlands will capture run-off before it gets into our rivers whilst providing a range of other benefits such as flood alleviation, wildlife habitat and improvements to air quality”.