• Which Pollutants are Most Common in English Rivers?

Water/Wastewater

Which Pollutants are Most Common in English Rivers?

Jun 02 2023

A recent study exposes the harmful impacts of chemical mixtures contaminating England's rivers, lakes, and groundwater sources, posing a considerable risk to local wildlife. Several rivers, including the Mersey, Stour, Colne, Thames, Trent, Yare, Irwell, Medway, Humber, and Avon, are reportedly carrying about 100 known chemicals, including PFAS, pesticides, and pharmaceuticals. However, scientists speculate that the actual figure may be substantially higher. 

The investigation, conducted by Wildlife and Countryside Link (WCL) and The Rivers Trust, utilized Environment Agency data. Their analysis unveiled detrimental chemical combinations present in 814 river and lake sites, which equates to 81% of the total examined areas. Furthermore, these harmful mixtures were discovered in 805 groundwater locations, a staggering 74% of the total sites. 

The study tested for five specific toxic combinations involving PFAS chemicals PFOS, PFOA, PFBS, and PFHxS, the pesticide 2,4-D, and the common painkiller ibuprofen. Over half of all sites scrutinized, approximately 1,619, were found to contain three or more of these hazardous mixtures. These chemicals, introduced into the environment via industrial and agricultural runoff or sewage, can synergistically amplify their harmful effects on species including amphibians, fish, insects, nitrogen-fixing bacteria, and algae. Adverse impacts range from stunted growth and impaired cell function to embryonic damage and decreased survival rates. 

Richard Benwell, CEO of WCL, warns that the current governmental approach of regulating individual chemicals overlooks their combined effects. He urges that future chemical strategy must consider the overall impact of these toxic substances, not just their isolated risks. 

Several rivers, including the Chelt, Derwent, Trent, Exe, Ouse, Wansbeck, and Yare, were found to be affected by all five chemical combinations. These concoctions were found to harm various forms of aquatic life, from amphibians to algae and midges, which are vital for a healthy ecosystem. However, the effects of these mixtures on humans, whether through bathing, drinking, or recreational activities, remain unclear. 

The PFAS group, comprising nearly 10,000 industrial and household substances, are infamously referred to as "forever chemicals" due to their persistence in the environment. PFOS and PFOA, both members of this group, have been linked to serious health issues and are currently restricted in the UK. 

The Rivers Trust, WCL, The Wildlife Trusts, Surfers Against Sewage, The National Trust, and other conservation groups, are advocating for phasing out toxic chemicals like PFAS, barring only the most essential uses. They suggest that chemicals should be regulated in groups and call for more in-depth research into the impacts of chemical combinations on wildlife and human health. 

Ruth Jones, the shadow minister for environment, food and rural affairs, has voiced criticism of the UK's current strategy on chemical pollution. She urges immediate action to alleviate the "chemical cocktail" in the country's rivers, alongside the sewage pollution scandal, to provide clean water for communities and nature. 

The government states that it is closely working with regulators to assess the potential risks posed by unintentional chemical mixtures. They have pledged to outline their strategy for managing chemical mixtures later in the year. 


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