River Wyre


A chemicals company, AGC Chemicals Europe, located in Thornton-Cleveleys, Lancashire, has been found to release significant quantities of a persistent and toxic chemical known as a “forever chemical” into the River Wyre.

The effluent from the site contains around 700 types of perfluorinated and polyfluorinated alkyl substances (PFAS), a group of human-made substances that do not break down in the environment for thousands of years. PFAS are known to be toxic and can accumulate in the human body.

The evaluation conducted by the Environment Agency focused on a specific PFAS called EEA-NH4, which was found in the effluent. The agency determined that EEA-NH4 is highly persistent, mobile in the environment, and toxic. It classified the chemical as “reprotoxic category 2,” indicating that it could potentially disrupt sexual function, fertility, and development in humans. Based on data provided by AGC Chemicals Europe, including monitoring data and effluent volumes, the agency estimated that approximately 783kg of EEA-NH4 is discharged into the River Wyre each year.

The report highlights significant gaps in knowledge regarding EEA-NH4 and PFAS in general. One key area of uncertainty is whether the substance accumulates in humans and animals. Without data on human clearance time or better predictive methods, it is challenging to draw conclusions about the bioaccumulation potential of EEA-NH4 in air-breathing organisms.

Prof Ian Cousins, an environmental chemist at Stockholm University, said: “EEA-NH4 is very persistent and mobile similar to GenX used by Chemours, which has been found in the Arctic, and it’s likely that EEA-NH4 will also be measured there as emissions continue. It will be transported by ocean currents, but even air emissions can result in long-range atmospheric transport.”

Dr David Megson, a senior lecturer in chemistry and environmental forensics at Manchester Metropolitan University, said the case highlighted “how we desperately need improved regulation and management of PFAS.

“Industry continues to innovate and develop new PFAS to replace those that have been banned. However, tougher regulations need to be put in place to ensure that these replacement chemicals are not also going to pose a risk to the environment and human health.

“This should not be at the detriment to industry, but we should use it as an opportunity for collaboration to develop safer sustainable replacements for PFAS.”

While there are restrictions on the manufacture and use of two PFAS chemicals, perfluorooctane sulfonate (PFOS) and perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA), out of the more than 10,000 chemicals classified as PFAS, many remain unregulated despite their potential health risks.

AGC Chemicals Europe, which produces polytetrafluoroethylene (PTFE) and ethylene-tetrafluoroethylene (ETFE), stated that it has not used PFOS, and PFOA was voluntarily phased out over a decade ago. However, previous investigations have revealed discharges of PFOA to the Wyre estuary from the site. AGC Chemicals maintains that any PFOA in the effluent might have originated from historical usage at the location.

Studies have indicated that certain PFAS can disrupt normal reproductive function in women by altering hormone secretion, the menstrual cycle, and fertility. However, the effects of thousands of other PFAS emissions remain largely unknown.

Cousins said: “We know little about the consequences of the releases of the hundreds of other PFAS because we only understand the toxicities, and other properties, of a few PFAS.”

A spokesperson for AGC Chemicals Europe said the company was in “full compliance with UK and EU regulations” and that it “sets the highest standards for itself as a responsible member of the local community and a sustainable business. We welcome recent assessments by the Environment Agency to protect and improve the environment and, as part of this, to address the uses of PFAS in the UK.”

They said the “evaluations conducted by the Environment Agency do not indicate that the substances used in our manufacturing processes have caused environmental harm. Ecological monitoring of the River Wyre which has been conducted for over 40 years shows no significant impact of AGC Chemicals Europe emissions to the River Wyre estuary.

“We take our responsibilities for the management of substances used in and emitted from our manufacturing process extremely seriously. We are actively developing and improving processes that save energy and further reduce emissions from our process. AGC Chemicals Europe has invested significantly in abatement equipment to minimise emissions and we have committed additional investment to further reduce emissions by the end of 2024.”

The company said the “fluoropolymers manufactured by AGC Chemicals Europe have unique properties which cannot be replicated by other compounds, making them essential for applications across the UK, European and global markets that contribute to sustainability including use in renewable and alternative energies, electric vehicles and medical applications”.

The spokesperson added that AGC Chemicals Europe “continues to work closely with the Environment Agency to ensure regular assessment of the substances we use”.

A spokesperson for the Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs and the Environment Agency said: “Since the 2000s, we have increased monitoring and either banned or highly restricted a number of PFAS both domestically and internationally. We are continuing to work with regulators to further understand the risks of PFAS and implement measures to address them. The Environment Agency is working with AGC Chemicals to further understand potential concerns about the presence of EEA-NH4 in the environment so that appropriate action can be taken.”

In response to these concerns, the Health and Safety Executive has recommended cutting PFAS emissions by developing restrictions under the UK Reach chemicals regulatory regime and establishing legal limits for PFAS in drinking water. The government has accepted these recommendations. The European Chemicals Agency in the EU is also considering a proposal by several countries to restrict the manufacture and use of approximately 10,000 PFAS chemicals, aiming to regulate them as a class, reduce emissions, and enhance product safety.

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