The news came as a shock: 100% of England’s rivers failed the pollution test. On 17th September, the Environment Agency published the results of their 2019 assessment required under the Water Framework Directive of 4,679 rivers, lakes, estuaries and other surface water bodies: 0% received good chemical status. Not one met the legal water quality standards.
Chemical pollution was not the only indicator which was alarming. The results for the ecological status of rivers was also very poor: 86% were not in good condition. Altogether, not one river or lake is in good health in England.
How did it come to this?
In 2016, 97% of the surface water bodies passed the chemical pollution test. Since 2016, new substances have been added to the assessment list, such as PFOS, a chemical from the PFAS family, and new standards have been developed for contaminants in aquatic wildlife. Put simply, the new assessment is more sensitive, and reveals what was under the radar before but highly suspected; that 100% of England’s rivers, lakes and waterways are polluted with synthetic chemicals related to human activity.
Even with the updated criteria, the current assessment still only looks at a very limited number of chemical contaminants, and the true scale of chemical pollution could be even more alarming. To properly address this we need an updated, fit-for-purpose monitoring system, that is efficient at alerting us to emerging chemical pollution threats.
Legacy persistent chemicals are responsible for failures
According to the Environment Agency 2021 river basin management plans, mercury, PFOS, and the brominated flame retardants PBDEs, are ubiquitous in the environment.
PFOS and PBDEs are synthetic chemicals that were phased out years ago and banned globally via the Stockholm Convention on persistent organic pollutants, yet they are still present in English rivers at levels exceeding the environmental standards set by the Water Framework Directive. This is explained by their high persistence; once they enter the environment, it takes decades for them to degrade. And because we can’t remove them once they are released, they continue to be dispersed in the environment, polluting England’s rivers for many decades, accumulating in wildlife and hindering the recovery of freshwater ecosystems.
We must learn from previous lessons and prevent emerging persistent pollutants, currently unmonitored, entering the water environment. A reduction plan on the use and emission of very persistent chemicals is urgently required.
Chemical pollution should be addressed primarily by regulating the use of hazardous chemicals
The results from the Chemical Investigation Programme Phase 2 (CIP2) carried out by the UK water Industry suggested that the main sources of pollution were not from a single point but mainly released from households. The CIPs have also pointed out that chemicals which have been heavily regulated, such as the flame retardants PBDEs, the phthalate DEHP, the antifoulant Tributyltin and the antibacterial triclosan, were all reporting downward trends (see summary page 32).
This observation demonstrates the effectiveness in regulating chemicals to reduce pollution. As expressed in our joint response with Wildlife and Countryside Link to the recent Environmental Agency consultation Challenges & Choices, CHEM Trust’s view is that it will not be possible to address the challenges of synthetic chemicals in the water environment without restricting the use of chemicals of concern in products.
Start by banning all non-essential uses of very persistent chemicals
Very persistent chemicals such as per- and polyfluorinated alkyl substances, PFAS, are being used in a plethora of consumer products. This includes cosmetics that are rinsed-off down the drain in the shower, contaminating rivers and the ocean for many generations. This issue, is no different from the plastic microbeads issue which was addressed by a ban on the sale of rinse-off cosmetics and personal care products containing microbeads in England and Scotland in 2018.
A ban on all non-essential uses of PFAS chemicals is currently being considered at the European level. In CHEM Trust’s view, this is the way forward to address pollution from very persistent chemicals and we are calling on the UK government to take a similar approach in the new UK chemical framework.
CHEM Trusts recommendations to address chemical pollution in English rivers:
The key recommendations in our response to the Environmental Agency consultation Challenges & Choices are:
- Reducing the use of hazardous chemicals via regulation should be the primary method to reduce chemical pollution in the water environment.
- An action plan on very persistent chemicals should be urgently developed, including a ban on all non-essential uses of PFAS.
- An efficient alert system should be in place to trigger action, e.g. a monitoring system covering all substances of high concern and capable of identifying substances of emerging concern.
Julie Schneider, CHEM Trust campaigner said:
“There is a continuous flow of synthetic chemicals related to human activity and consumer products entering English rivers.
Some of these synthetic substances take decades to degrade and will keep accumulating and polluting rivers and the ocean for generations if we don’t stop the flow urgently.
Restricting the use of such substances to only what is essential for society, is the best way to reduce the chemical burden in our waterways and this will be achieved only by stringent chemical regulation.”