Public awareness of the sorry condition of the UK’s rivers and lakes is growing. Who could not be appalled, as we learn about the outrageous outflows of sewage and wastewater that pour into the environment for millions of hours each year? It’s no wonder that only 14% of English rivers are in good ecological condition.
Less visible to the public, though, is the equally shocking fact that 0% of English rivers are in good chemical health. Every single river in the land is harmed by chemical pollution.
In new research, published today, we show that this pollution is mixing up in potentially even more dangerous “chemical cocktails”. Working with the Rivers Trust, we analysed Government data on contamination by pesticides, medicines and “forever chemicals”. We focused on mixtures known to have increased harmful effects in combination and found that 81% of rivers and lakes, and 74% of groundwater sources are polluted by at least one hazardous chemical cocktail.
These damaging chemical combinations have proven risks for wildlife, disrupting biological functions such as reproduction, cell function, and even reducing survival rates. For species already battling for survival in the face of habitat loss and sewage pollution, these chemical risks are a serious threat. As for the consequences for people, we simply do not know the extent of the dangers, but many of the chemical pollutants in our waters do accumulate in human tissues and have the potential to interfere with our health.
Tackling the threat
It would be wonderful if there were a simple solution to the problem, but the fact is that chemical use is so interwoven in our lives and our economy that serious government intervention will be needed to tackle damaging chemical pollutants.
There is a risk that the UK falls behind other countries in sensible regulation of harmful chemicals. Already, the UK is diverging from the European Union, lagging behind in the regulatory response to well-established toxic substances. We hope that the UK will take a sensible approach to mirror EU decision-making on harmful chemicals regulation, which benefits from access to a vast store of scientific information, unless there is good evidence to take a different approach in individual cases.
But there is also an opportunity for the UK to set a lead in heading off the toxic chemical cocktails threat.
The Government has promised a UK Chemicals Strategy. This is the opportunity to take a decisive domestic hold on chemical pollution. In a joint campaign with many NGOs (from National Trust to Surfers Against Sewage), we are calling on the Government to take three important steps:
1. Phase out the most risky substances, including forever chemicals, from all but vital uses. They may have a place in medical technology, but they do not have a place in our kitchens, in our cosmetics, our clothes or food packaging.
2. Treat chemicals in groups, so that when one dangerous chemical is banned, it cannot simply be replaced by a notionally distinct, but potentially similarly dangerous product.
3. Set regulatory safeguards for “cocktail effects”, moving beyond current regulation of individual substances to set precautionary rules to prevent the build up of toxic mixtures in our environment.
Of course, these changes must be underpinned by a much more rigorous approach to monitoring and reporting on the presence of chemical cocktails across our environment – ensuring we know what is our environment and how it may be affecting us
The big picture and local answers
The Stockholm Institute has reported that the world has now overstepped planetary safe limits on the use of synthetic chemicals, with a fifty-fold increase in production since the 1950s.
Here in England, the Government has a legally-binding obligation to halt the decline of wildlife by 2030. Restoring the health of our freshwater environment will be crucial to that success. On-going chemical pollution is anathema to healthy ecosystems, particularly as global chemical production is projected to double by 2030, with a corresponding increase in the release of chemical pollutants
So, the need for improved chemicals management does not stop at the riverbank. It is part of a vital response to the wider ecological emergency.
You can support the campaign to end the threat of harmful chemical cocktails here.
Richard Benwell is CEO at Wildlife and Countryside Link.
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