A recent study has uncovered the presence of harmful chemical cocktails in 81% of river and lake sites tested across England, raising concerns among wildlife organizations. The findings have prompted calls for stricter testing of waterways and the implementation of legal protections against dangerous mixtures. Wildlife advocates are urging the government to mandate assessments of potential hazardous impacts before allowing new chemicals on the market.
Although the government currently monitors and regulates individual chemical levels, it largely overlooks the cumulative effects of chemical mixtures, referred to as the “cocktail effect.” While a new chemicals strategy is expected to address long-lasting “forever chemicals,” campaigners emphasize the need for action against harmful mixtures.
Data analysis conducted by Wildlife and Countryside Link and the Rivers Trust, using information collected by the Environment Agency, revealed that out of 1,006 river and lake sites, 814 exhibited toxic mixtures. More than half of the sites (54%) contained three or more of the five investigated harmful chemical cocktails, with river samples containing up to 101 different chemicals.
The rivers with the highest number of chemicals detected included the Mersey, Stour, Colne, Thames, Trent, Yare, Irwell, Medway, Humber, and Avon. Among the chemicals identified were four per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS), commonly known as “forever chemicals”: PFOS, PFOA, PFBS, and PFHxS. The pesticide 2,4-D and the widely used painkiller ibuprofen were also found.
Laboratory studies have demonstrated that when these chemicals are combined, they have devastating effects on water species such as amphibians, fish, insects, nitrogen-fixing bacteria, and algae. Adverse effects include stunted growth, impaired cell function, and reduced survival rates. Concerns have also been raised about potential negative impacts on human health, although conclusive evidence is yet to be established.
Several sites exhibited all five chemical cocktails, including the Chelt in Cheltenham, the Derwent in Yorkshire, the Trent in Staffordshire, the Exe in Devon, the Ouse in East Sussex, the Wansbeck in Northumberland, and the Yare in Norfolk. These findings underscore the urgent need for comprehensive action to address the presence of harmful chemical mixtures in waterways, safeguard wildlife, and protect human health.
Richard Benwell, the chief executive 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, the 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.”
A spokesperson for the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs said: “We are working closely with our regulators to assess the potential risks posed by unintentional chemical mixtures to our environment. This builds on work since the 2000s to increase monitoring and either ban or highly restrict a number of PFAS, both domestically and internationally. We will set out our approach to managing chemical mixtures in the chemicals strategy later this year.”
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