pollution in rivers

Government urged to tackle chemical pollution of rivers

Environment Agency data shows toxic chemicals present in many of England’s rivers and lakes, some of which can kill fish, insects and wildlife
09 June 2023 , Steve Smethurst

Charities including Surfers Against Sewage and The National Trust launch a ‘Chemical Cocktail Campaign’, calling on the government to impose tougher regulation

Chemicals that are harmful to wildlife have been found in 81% of more than a thousand rivers and lakes across England. The same chemicals were found in 74% of a similar number of groundwater sites.

The figures come from an analysis of Environment Agency (EA) data by Wildlife and Countryside Link and The Rivers Trust, which looked at the prevalence of five chemical cocktails known to have toxic impacts for wildlife. 

The chemicals can harm fish, insects and other wildlife by stunting their growth, reducing their ability to function and, in some cases, killing them. More than half of the sites (54%) contained at least three of the five.

In total, 101 chemicals were identified in river samples, with sites along the Thames, Mersey, Trent, Humber and Avon among those containing the highest numbers of chemicals. 

A group of charities, including Wildlife and Countryside Link, The Rivers Trust, Surfers Against Sewage, Fidra, The Wildlife Trusts and The National Trust, have launched a ‘Chemical Cocktail Campaign’, urging the government to take a much more ambitious approach to regulating harmful chemicals. 

Richard Benwell, CEO of Wildlife and Countryside Link said: “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 [due to be published by the government in 2023] must make sure harmful substances are regulated not just for individual risks, but for their effects in combination.”

“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.”

Rob Collins, Director of Policy and Science at the Rivers Trust drew attention to ‘small scale’ impacts from toiletries, food packaging, clothing and other goods, to ‘large-scale’ industrial, medical and food production.

He said: “We need to stop pumping poison into our rivers. Hazardous chemicals are flowing into our waters, derived from every aspect of our lives. 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.”

Conservative MP Philip Dunne, Chair of the UK Parliament Environmental Audit Committee, said he was alarmed by the lack of monitoring taking place for harmful pollutants, including chemicals. 

He said: “It raises concerns about the potential harm to human health and it is leaving destruction of nature in its wake. The government should build on its plans to improve water quality by having a clear roadmap on how to address the dangerous chemical cocktail coursing through England’s waterways.”

David Carr, Lead Scientific Officer, Environmental and Community Protection at Dacorum Borough Council said the UK should be tightening regulations and environmental limits.

He cited the need for environmental impact research to keep up “as close as possible” with the development of new chemical compounds and for there to be sufficient legislation to prevent or minimise environmental emissions – and sufficient resourcing to support enforcement, monitoring and remediation.

Carr said: “It is vital that the UK does not fall behind in that work and is ambitious in providing public and environmental health professionals and regulators with the necessary data and environmental limits to adequately protect the environment and public health.”

Image credit: Shutterstock

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