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Combatting chemicals – the biggest challenge facing rivers?

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Logo: The Rivers Trust

By Rebecca Duncan, PR & Events Coordinator

On World Water Day, those of us working in the freshwater sector ought to be grateful that rivers are receiving more attention than ever before. Usually though, it’s not positive attention/for positive reasons. In 2022, sewage pollution, flooding, and drought all hit the headlines and drew public focus and frustration across the UK and Ireland.

Green algae covering a rock
Green Algae (Canva)

Sewage pollution is undoubtedly the water quality issue that captures the most public interest, but it’s just one of many interrelated issues that must be addressed to bring our rivers back to health.

When the government published their legally binding Environment Act targets in December, there was one in particular that raised eyebrows. The new target date for all surface water bodies in England to achieve good chemical and ecological status is 2063 – four decades from now[1]. That target was previously set for 2027, as per the EU Water Framework Directive. Given that not one water body is currently in good overall health, 2027 was always going to be ambitious. But the thought of waiting another 40 years for our rivers to be healthy again is extremely dispiriting.

Water quality is currently classified according to the ecological and chemical status of a waterbody, and the two are considered together to determine overall status; failing on one of them means failing overall. The ecological health of English rivers is far from acceptable, with just 16% classed as good or high, 64% moderate, 17% poor, and 3% bad according to the latest Water Framework Directive assessment in 2019. In comparison, though, the statistics on chemical status read like an environmental horror story – 100% of rivers in England are failing chemical standards[2]. So when we talk about none of our rivers being in good health, chemical pollution is the key reason why.

Colourful bottles of household cleaners in a mop bucket
(Canva)

Chemical pollution is an insidious problem. By nature, many of these harmful substances are difficult to dispose of, they don’t break down easily, and are therefore difficult to eradicate from the environment. Some of the chemicals causing water bodies to fail the Water Framework Directive – mercury, for example – are already regulated in England, but they are extremely persistent.

Hazardous chemicals can be either synthetic or naturally occurring, and are found in a staggering number of products, including electric, agricultural, and cosmetic goods. Whether they’re in the washing up liquid you’re sending down the drain, the weed killer you’re using in the garden, or in piles of plastic waste at landfill sites, chemicals are ubiquitous as society has become increasingly reliant on them. They can be emitted into the environment at any stage of their life cycle, from production through use, to disposal, and some have severe chronic and acute impacts on aquatic life. For instance, Endocrine Disrupting Chemicals (EDCs) affect hormone production in aquatic organisms, which can have a detrimental effect on reproduction and growth. Moreover, multiple chemicals can be found in the same location within our rivers and these chemical cocktails can work synergistically to worsen the effects on the freshwater ecosystem. Chemical pollution of freshwaters also raises implications for human health through the consumption of freshwater fish and direct contact via recreational use, including bathing.

Looking at these statistics, it’s not surprising that WWF’s Living Planet Index found species in freshwater habitats to have suffered the greatest decline of any habitat type between 1970 and 2012, a devastating 81%[3]. This is an urgent problem requiring urgent action – and that must start from the top, with action at a government level.

Water going down a kitchen sink plughole
Household drain (Canva)

Whilst legislation against sewage pollution in the government’s Storm Overflows Discharge Reduction plan is imperfect, progress is being made and we will keep banging the drum for further improvements. Sadly this is not the case with chemical pollution from other sources. We await the government’s delayed chemicals strategy, hoping that some of the most important guiding principles of environmental protection are not disregarded.

So what are those principles, and what do we want to see in that strategy? First of all, a precautionary, preventative approach is absolutely imperative if we are to protect the environment and wildlife from further chemical pollution. Introducing new chemicals into the market and allowing them to be widely used without knowing if they can damage the environment or even impact human health could be disastrous, especially for species that are already close to extinction. We strongly advocate for the precautionary principle, which would prevent new chemicals and compounds being introduced if their potential impacts are unknown or suspect.

When it comes to harmful substances that are already in circulation, the government’s chemical strategy must provide a clear plan and timetable for the ban on non-essential use of the most hazardous chemicals, including EDCs. If a substance is deemed essential and there is no safe alternative at the moment, then we need to invest in research that can develop such an alternative. Similarly, other highly persistent chemicals such as the 4,500+ per- and polyfluorinated alkyl substances (PFAS) must be phased out as quickly as possible. This should be applied not just to individual chemicals but to groups of chemicals, so one harmful chemical doesn’t end up being replaced by a similar one that could have comparable effects.

Brown trout swimming underneath a duck in a clear river
Brown Trout (Paul Colley)

Numerous new and emerging chemicals are now found in our rivers and for many of these, understanding of their impacts on the freshwater ecosystem remains incomplete. A robust monitoring and alert system is needed to identify sources of emissions and pollution hotspots, and further research is required to understand their impact. Sadly, chemical water quality monitoring in England is nowhere near comprehensive enough at the moment. Without joined-up monitoring systems across whole river catchments and at a sufficient temporal scale, we will not have adequate understanding of chemical pollution to stop it.

Finally, we cannot let the health of our rivers – or the environment as a whole – be jeopardised for the sake of party-political capital, namely different positions on the UK’s future relationship with the European Union. The Retained EU Law Bill, which is progressing through the House of Lords as I write, is set to remove swathes of EU derived water quality protections, including Bathing Water Regulations and the Water Framework Directive. It is crucial that any modification to EU law only strengthens environmental regulation and does not relax it. The EU Registration, Evaluation, Authorisation and Restriction of Chemicals (REACH) programme, while imperfect, is the de facto standard for chemical regulation worldwide and the UK should remain aligned with it. There is no space for political point scoring when it comes to protecting our planet.

Tackling chemical pollution is a ‘wicked problem’, for those who love and value rivers we have no choice but to take it on. It’s time to reverse the flow and ensure that 2023 becomes a watershed moment for chemicals in rivers.

Find out more about Rivers Trust at www.theriverstrust.org


  1. Objectives data for England: https://environment.data.gov.uk/catchment-planning/v/c3-plan/England/objectives
  2. Defra Classifications data for England: https://environment.data.gov.uk/catchment-planning/England/classifications
  3. WWF Living Planet Index: https://wwf.panda.org/discover/knowledge_hub/all_publications/living_planet_index2/

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    Posted On: 17/03/2023

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