New analysis of official Environment Agency data has revealed the worrying scale of chemical cocktail pollution in rivers and other freshwater sites across England. The research, which looked at the prevalence of 5 chemical cocktails known to have toxic impacts for wildlife, also highlights the lack of official monitoring for known harmful chemical cocktails, as well as the lack of a regulatory framework to address these mixtures.
Findings from Wildlife and Countryside Link and The Rivers Trust reveal that:
- Chemical cocktails, that have been proven harmful to wildlife in scientific studies, have been found in 814 river and lake sites (out of 1,006 sites with data - 81% ) and 805 groundwater sites (out of 1,086 sites with data - 74%) across England.
- Over half (54%) of these sites contained 3 or more of the 5 harmful chemical cocktails investigated.
- Up to 101 chemicals were identified in river samples, with sites along the rivers Mersey, Stour, Colne, Thames, Trent, Yare, Irwell, Medway, Humber and Avon among those containing the highest numbers of chemicals. The actual numbers of chemical pollutants will be even higher.
The chemical cocktails found across the 1,619 sites contained six different chemicals in 5 different hazardous mixtures. These included four toxic forever chemicals PFOS, PFOA, PFBS and PFHxS, the pesticide 2,4-D and the commonly used painkiller ibuprofen (see table below for more detail). In specific combinations these chemicals are known to have increased harmful impacts on a range of species including amphibians, fish, insects, nitrogen-fixing bacteria and algae. Identified detrimental effects included reduced growth, cell function, impacts on embryos and lower survival rates. Any potential human health implications, for example through contact via bathing or recreation, remain unknown.
Some of the sites where all five chemical cocktails were found include: The Chelt (in Cheltenham); The Derwent (in Yorkshire); The Trent (in Staffordshire); The Exe (in Devon); The Ouse (in Lewes East Sussex); the Wansbeck (in Northumberland); and the Yare (in Norfolk).
A group of charities, including Wildlife and Countryside Link, The Rivers Trust, Surfers Against Sewage, Buglife, WildFish, Fidra, Pesticide Action Network UK, The Wildlife Trusts, The National Trust, Whale and Dolphin Conservation and the Pesticide Collaboration, are launching a ‘Chemical Cocktail Campaign’ today, urging the Government to take a much more ambitious approach to regulating harmful chemicals. Their calls include asking Government to include in its forthcoming UK Chemicals Strategy: regular monitoring for chemical cocktails in rivers, and new legal protections against dangerous chemical cocktails, including requiring assessments of potential hazardous chemical mixture impacts before any new chemical is allowed on the market.
Richard Benwell, CEO of Wildlife and Countryside Link, said: “A harmful chemical cocktail is being stirred up in UK rivers, putting wildlife and public health at risk. Government regulates and monitors chemicals individually, ignoring the cocktail effect. But our research shows that toxic combinations of pesticides, pharmaceuticals and forever chemicals are polluting rivers up and down the country. The new Chemicals Strategy must make sure harmful substances are regulated not just for individual risks, but for their effects in combination.”
Rob Collins, Director of Policy and Science at the Rivers Trust, said: “We need to stop pumping poison into our rivers. Hazardous chemicals are flowing into our waters, derived from every aspect of our lives. On the small-scale from the toiletries, food packaging, clothing and other goods we use individually, to large-scale industrial, medical and food production, we are creating an ever-growing chemical cocktail in our rivers. The fact that these known toxic chemical combinations are found so widely across the country is deeply worrying. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg. Unless we act now we’ll see increasingly contaminated water, less wildlife in our rivers and ocean, and this raises implications for human health as well.”
Ellen Bradley, Co-Director of UK Youth For Nature, said: “The chemical cocktail in our rivers is a recipe for disaster for nature and future generations. Everything from the clothes we wear to the medicines we use plays a part in the problem. Even the food we eat everyday is part of a broken system that is choking our rivers with harmful chemicals and leaving UK wildlife paying the price. Tougher chemical controls and curbs on agricultural pollution are vital if younger people are to see our not so freshwater cleaned up in their lifetimes.”
A range of five known toxic chemical cocktails was looked for in Environment Agency data. While there are other known toxic combinations (and likely many more unknown) a narrow focus was used due to the volume of data that needed to be reviewed. All of the chemical combinations focused on cocktail impacts with the harmful and extremely prevalent forever chemicals perfluorooctane sulfonate (PFOS) and perfluorooctanoate (PFOA) . These were chosen due to how widespread they are (despite having been banned) and the need for them to be recorded under Water Framework Directive requirements, making them more visible chemical contaminants for assessment.
The following table details the toxic chemical cocktails that were investigated and the number of sites they were discovered at. Alongside this, are details of the studies that have identified harm to wildlife species from these harmful chemical combinations. Please note that all of these studies were carried out in laboratory conditions, not in the field.
The levels of these contaminants in rivers were typically much lower than in the laboratory studies, but individually, each of these chemicals are known to impact wildlife at concentrations lower than those reported in these studies. In addition it is not known how these chemical cocktails (which are binary mixtures studied in the laboratory) interact with other chemicals in a wider mixture in our rivers. Their widespread presence in our rivers, knowing their damaging impacts in laboratory studies, is cause for concern.