‘Toxic timebomb’: more than 80% of England’s rivers and lakes contain harmful ‘forever chemicals’

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The results have been described as “shocking” and “just the tip of the iceberg” as most PFAS are not monitored in the UK

Toxic chemicals that are harmful to wildlife have been found in 81% of England’s rivers and lakes, new research shows.

Analysis of Environment Agency (EA) data by the Wildlife and Countryside Link and The River Trust discovered that southern regions have the highest proportion of these chemical combinations in its lakes and rivers.

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Of 1,006 river and lake sites with data, 814 were found to have toxic mixtures, while analysis also found that more than half of the sites contained three or more of the five harmful chemical cocktails.

The rivers with the highest numbers of chemicals included the Mersey, Stour, Colne, Thames, Trent, Yare, Irwell, Medway, Humber and Avon.

Six chemicals in five different mixtures were found across the sites including four toxic per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) - known as “forever chemicals” - PFOS, PFOA, PFBS and PFHxS. The pesticide 2,4-D and the painkiller ibuprofen were also identified.

The analysis, published on Wednesday (24 May), shows that 96% of rivers and lakes in both the South West and South East were found to contain these toxic chemical cocktails. This was followed by London where the cocktails were found in 91% of rivers and lakes.

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Over 80% of UK rivers and lakes contain harmful chemicals. (Photo: Getty Images) Over 80% of UK rivers and lakes contain harmful chemicals. (Photo: Getty Images)
Over 80% of UK rivers and lakes contain harmful chemicals. (Photo: Getty Images) | Getty Images

Lakes and groundwaters in London and the South East had fewer of these chemical cocktails present than the average, but they were found to have rivers that had some of the highest number of individual chemicals identified.

Meanwhile the South West had 72% of its groundwater sites containing chemical cocktails.The region also had the highest proportion of river, lake and ground sites to contain three or more of these chemical combinations and up to 91 chemicals found in individual rivers.

The North East and North West also had 80% and 70% of river, lake and groundwater sites identified as having the toxic mixtures present respectively.

The River Mersey above Howley Weir was found to have the highest number of individual chemicals present of any river in England, while the West Midlands had a slightly lower overall percentage of sites affected, but had a very high proportion of rivers and lakes where the chemical cocktails are found at 93% .

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The East of England and Yorkshire and Humber had a smaller proportion of sites where these chemical cocktails were identified but one or more of these toxic mixtures were still found in almost one in six of river, lake and groundwater sites tested for chemicals.

Dr Rob Collins, Director of Policy and Science at the Rivers Trust, said the results are “shocking” and “could be just the tip of the iceberg,” as UK monitoring of PFAS is “patchy at best” with most forever chemicals “not even monitored”.

In laboratory conditions, these chemicals mixed together have been found to have disastrous impacts on water species. The effects on these creatures included stunted growth, reduced cell function and lower survival rates.

Campaigners are calling on the government to ban the use of “forever chemicals” in products  such as cosmetics and food packaging.

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Richard Benwell, CEO of Wildlife and Countryside Link, said: “‘Forever chemicals are a toxic timebomb, building up in our waters and wildlife - a risk for nature and public health. The government’s upcoming Chemicals Strategy and PFAS regulations are a critical opportunity to head off the threat.

“The government should ban unnecessary ‘forever chemical’ use in products like cosmetics and food packaging, tackle similar chemicals as a group, and set safety standards to prevent dangerous chemical cocktail effects in the environment.”

A spokesperson for the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs told the Guardian: “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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