Today the UK Parliament’s Environmental Audit Committee (EAC) has published a new report concluding that a ‘chemical cocktail’ of sewage, slurry and plastic is polluting English rivers and putting public health and nature at risk.
The report is the result of its inquiry into water quality in English rivers, launched in December 2020.
None of England’s rivers assessed by the Environment Agency in 2019 received good chemical status. This means that all have levels of chemical contaminants, related to human activities, that exceed environmental standards. A joint briefing from CHEM Trust and the Marine Conservation Society highlights how chemical pollution is impacting freshwater and marine environments.
Monitoring regimes are outdated, underfunded and inadequate
The EAC concluded that outdated, underfunded and inadequate monitoring regimes make it difficult to determine the health of England’s rivers.
The report highlights that many pollutants, including a range of legacy and ’emerging’ chemical pollutants, are not being routinely measured. It quotes evidence submitted by CHEM Trust that routine water quality monitoring “only shows the tip of the iceberg in terms of chemical pollution in UK rivers”.
It also highlights the threat from persistent chemicals, such as the family of chemicals called per- and polyfluorinated alkyl substances (PFAS), that do not degrade easily in the natural environment. It gives the example of one substance belonging to this family, PFOS, that was restricted globally under the 2009 Stockholm Convention, but continues to be found above thresholds in England’s rivers, demonstrating its persistence. However, thousands more PFAS substances are not currently monitored in England’s rivers.
The EAC recommends that data should be gathered on the full range of pollutants contributing to poor water quality. The committee calls for the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs to commission “in conjunction with the devolved administrations, a UK-wide survey of emerging pollutants and microplastic pollution of river environments, including an assessment of their potential impact on aquatic ecology”.
Step-change in regulatory action urgently required
The Committee calls for a step-change in “regulatory and polluter action” to restore rivers to good ecological health and for pollution across river catchments to be progressively reduced.
CHEM Trust’s recommendations
In CHEM Trust’s written evidence to the inquiry, we set out how chemical pollution is hindering the recovery of UK rivers’ wildlife, and the particular threat posed by persistent chemicals.
Our recommendations include:
- Controlling pollution at source, including banning the most hazardous chemicals (especially very persistent chemicals such as PFAS) in all non-essential uses
- The remediation of contamination of legacy pollutants such as PCBs.
- Closing regulatory gaps in UK chemicals regulations in order to efficiently protect UK rivers
Ellie Hawke, Campaigner at CHEM Trust, says
“This report is a vital call to arms to improve the quality of water in our rivers and for Government and public bodies to consider this a principal objective for delivering on the legally binding duty to halt species decline by 2030. It rightly highlights how chemical pollution is undermining the health and resilience of these important ecosystems.
“We urge the UK Government to take the regulatory action needed to address pollution at source, in its forthcoming Chemicals Strategy.”
12 Key Asks for the UK Chemicals Strategy
Actions to tackle chemical pollution in UK rivers must be included in the UK Government’s upcoming Chemicals Strategy.
CHEM Trust and 29 environmental and public health NGOs have outlined 12 Key Asks for the strategy, several of which address the concerns raised by the EAC’s report. These include:
- Phasing out the most hazardous chemicals from consumer products, for all non-essential uses
- Phasing out the use of PFAS and other very persistent chemicals
- Developing an effective monitoring and alert system
- Stopping the continued accumulation of legacy chemicals in the environment