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Chemical pollution, the other driver of the nature crisis

Dr Francesca Bevan (Marine Conservation Society) & Dr Julie Schneider (CHEM Trust) discuss what we know-and what we don't- about the damage chemical pollution is doing to UK marine & freshwater wildlife, with a look ahead to the UK Chemicals Strategy

June 2021

Chemical pollution is often invisible and its impacts can span generations, due to its sometimes long-lasting effects. As nature declines at an alarming rate, this is adding to the many other stressors, from climate change to habitat loss, making wildlife populations and entire ecosystems more vulnerable and less resilient.

In the UK, chemical pollution is a concerning issue. In 2019, not a single one of England’s 4,679 rivers, lakes or estuaries achieved good environmental status, due to chemicals associated with human activities polluting them all. But what impact is this chemical pollution having on marine and freshwater wildlife in the UK specifically?

A new joint briefing by the Marine Conservation Society and CHEM Trust, “State of play of the impact of chemical pollution on freshwater and marine wildlife in the UK” is the result of our investigation on this issue, including conversations with 15 UK academics during the course of 2020.

What is clear from our investigation is that chemical pollution is impacting the marine and freshwater environments in the UK, with persistent organic pollutants (POPs) being particularly harmful. And it is very clear from this evidence that the UK Governments should take urgent action to mitigate the current and future impacts of human made persistent chemicals.

Poisons from the past

Legacy POP’s are synthetic chemicals that have been phased out in past decades, but are still wreaking havoc due to their extreme persistence in the environment.

In the marine environment, these legacy chemicals, in particular polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), have been found to negatively affect the immune system, reproductive system and lipid metabolism of marine mammals in the UK (e.g. killer whales, harbour porpoises, grey seals). This is a source of concern for the long-term impact of chemical pollution on marine mammal populations, with clear evidence that killer whale populations are in decline.

In freshwater, POPs are thought to be responsible for the fact that specific freshwater species, such as certain fish and invertebrates, have only partially recovered from their decline in the 20th century.

Incomplete picture: What about other contaminants?

The chemical landscape has evolved significantly in the past decades, with thousands of new substances put on the market and a strong diversification of compounds. Emerging contaminants of concern include, but are not limited to, Per- and polyfluorinated alkyl substances (PFAS) (used in textiles, food packaging, cosmetics & in industries like aerospace, vehicles and electronics), new generations of flame retardants, neonicotinoid insecticides and pharmaceuticals.

Unfortunately, the scarcity of data on emerging contaminants makes it difficult to derive their trends and impacts on marine and freshwater wildlife in the UK. Worryingly, academics mentioned, that in several instances it cannot be ruled out that adverse effects ascribed to specific legacy contaminants could, in reality, result from a combination effect of legacy and emerging pollutants.

The UK Chemicals Strategy

What was clear from the scientists’ perspective was that chemical regulation needs to be much more proactive by preventing new ‘problem’ chemicals from entering widespread use to avoid having to mitigate the impacts retrospectively. This is an important message for the UK Governments to take onboard, as a consultation of their new Chemicals Strategy is expected in late 2021.

There is a need for longer-term monitoring to be included as part of the strategy, which integrates chemical, biological and ecological indicators. It is crucial to be able to better assess the real-world and long-term impact of chemical pollution as well as identify unforeseen adverse impacts.

In the meantime, we, alongside other UK NGOs have put together 12 Key Asks for the UK Chemicals Strategy (sent to UK Governments in May 2021). Due to the evidence regarding the lasting impact of POPs, it is very clear that actions to mitigate the current and future impacts of highly persistent chemicals should be urgently taken. In particular we need to see:

1. Drastic reduction in the emissions of emerging persistent chemicals in the environment by phasing out their uses.
2. Reduction of the remaining diffuse emissions of legacy POPs by identifying and remediating hot spots of contamination.

Crucially we also need to update monitoring, to not just include monitoring pollutants from the past, but the full spectrum of chemical pollutants. At the moment the UK paints a very incomplete picture of the true pollution burden of aquatic wildlife and ecosystems. We thereby risk repeating the same mistakes made for legacy chemicals, where interventions were too late. The highly persistent nature of some emerging pollutants such as PFAS means that once in the environment, their impacts will be felt for decades. We urge the UK Governments to implement our 12 key asks to safeguard wildlife, ecosystems and people from the harmful effects of chemical pollution.

Dr Francesca Bevan is Policy and Advocacy Manager (Chemicals) for Marine Conservation Society. Dr Julie Schneider is campaigner for CHEM Trust.

The opinions expressed in this blog are the author's and not necessarily those of the wider Link membership.