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Which rivers in England have the highest number of chemical cocktails?

Harmful chemical cocktails have been detected in 81 per cent of river and lake sites in England (Shutterstock/Droneski Imaging)
Harmful chemical cocktails have been detected in 81 per cent of river and lake sites in England (Shutterstock/Droneski Imaging)

Harmful chemical cocktails have been found in 81 per cent of river and lake sites in England, according to a study.

The report has prompted wildlife groups to press the Government to make testing of waterways stricter and bring in legal protections against toxic mixtures, as well as assess the potential for harm from mixtures of chemicals before new chemicals are permitted.

Here’s everything you need to know.

What does the analysis show?

The Government monitors and regulates individual levels of chemicals but the effect of the combined mixture of substances has been ignored.

This year the Government is scheduled to release a chemicals strategy, which is expected to contain a method for dealing with “forever chemicals”, however, in addition, campaigners want ministers to stop the use of harmful mixtures.

According to analysis of data compiled by the Government’s Environment Agency, 1,006 river and lake sites were discovered to contain these toxic mixtures.

More than half of the sites – 54 per cent – contained three or more of the five harmful chemical cocktails, and up to 101 chemicals were identified in river samples, according to data analysis by Wildlife and Countryside Link and the Rivers Trust.

Which chemicals were found in the water?

There were six chemicals identified in five separate mixtures across the sites.

Four are toxic substances, known as forever chemicals or polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS): PFOS, PFOA, PFBS and PFHxS. The commonly used painkiller ibuprofen and the pesticide 2, 4-D was also identified. When mixed together in a labratory, these chemicals can have disastrous impacts on water species such as amphibians, fish, insects, algae and nitrogen-fixed bacteria.

They lead to reduced cell function, stunted growth and depleted survival rates.

Some campaigners also suspect they are harmful to humans as well but this has yet to be proved.

Rob Collins, the director of policy and science at the Rivers Trust, told the Guardian: “We need to stop pumping poison into our rivers. Hazardous chemicals are flowing into our waters, derived from every aspect of our lives. On the small-scale from the toiletries, food packaging, clothing and other goods we use individually, to large-scale industrial, medical and food production, we are creating an ever-growing chemical cocktail in our rivers.

“The fact that these known toxic chemical combinations are found so widely across the country is deeply worrying. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg. Unless we act now we’ll see increasingly contaminated water, less wildlife in our rivers and ocean, and this raises implications for human health as well.”

Which rivers have the highest number of chemical cocktails?

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

Sites containing all five chemical cocktails, include the Chelt in Cheltenham, the Derwent in Yorkshire, the Trent in Staffordshire, the Exe in Devon, the Ouse in East Susssex, the Wansbeck in Northumberland and the Yare in Norfolk.

Speaking to the Guardian, Richard Benwell, the chief executive of Wildlife and Countryside Link, said: “A harmful chemical cocktail is being stirred up in UK rivers, putting wildlife and public health at risk. Government regulates and monitors chemicals individually, ignoring the cocktail effect.

“But our research shows that toxic combinations of pesticides, pharmaceuticals and forever chemicals are polluting rivers up and down the country. The new chemicals strategy must make sure harmful substances are regulated not just for individual risks, but for their effects in combination.”

A spokesperson for the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs said: “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.”