World Water Day is all about accelerating change to solve water use and sanitation crises. It is no secret that our waterways are facing a variety of issues from overuse, pollution, and climate change. We often focus on the issues we can see; they are often much easier to highlight to people and emphasise the issues. However, there are many unseen problems in our rivers and waterways, including more elusive forms of pollution. Two of the most notable are PFAS and microplastics.
Commonly known as “forever chemicals”, per- or poly-fluorinated alkyl substances (PFAS) are a group of thousands of industrial chemicals found in everyday products, from Teflon frying pans, to bike oil, and even our toiletries. PFAS are a particularly worrying form of chemical pollution due to their abundance and how readily they are released into the environment. They have used since the 1940s and are now so widely dispersed that they can be found in air, soil, water and our blood. Unfortunately, we currently know very little about the health impacts and environmental toxicity of the vast majority of the PFAS. However, those that have been studied have been shown to cause harm to both humans and wildlife.
Recent analysis by The Rivers Trust and Wildlife and Countryside Link shone the light on just how widespread PFAS are in English rivers. The research found that 81 of the 105 English river sites surveyed contained PFAS at levels which would not meet tougher new proposed EU standards. Additionally, 44 sites exceeded this level by more than five times, with some breaching it by 10 and even 20 times. This demonstrates just how prevalent PFAS are—and just how dire the situation is.
Despite thousands of known PFAS, only a handful are regulated globally and the UK risks falling behind the European Union which is now considering restrictions on the use of 10,000 PFAS.
Learn more about PFAS here and in these recent articles:
Toxic timebomb of ‘forever chemicals’ in England’s rivers (thetimes.co.uk)
UK risks falling behind Europe in controlling ‘forever chemicals’ | PFAS | The Guardian
Whilst a plastic bottle floating down a river is clear for everyone to see, there are thousands of unseen pieces of plastic in our rivers. Microplastics can be defined in a variety of different ways with several classifications involving differentiating particles by size, shape, and structure, but a general definition is a synthetic polymer less than 5mm in size. As larger pieces of plastic degrade, they produce thousands of tiny microplastic particles which can travel huge distances, accumulating in our waterways, wildlife and even us.
Microplastics can have a variety of negative impacts on our wildlife and environment. The small pieces can be mistaken for food by aquatic species and consumption of them has been shown to cause gut blockage and physical injuries. Additionally, they have even been linked to changes in energy levels, growth rates, and reproduction. When predators eat animals that have ingested microplastics, the concentration bioaccumulates, posing a potentially greater risk to organisms further up the food chain. Furthermore, they can leach polluting chemicals into the water, causing changes in water chemistry and having a negative impact on the ecosystem.
It's important to remember that plastic pollution refers to more than just the plastic we see; it is even more widespread than it appears. Tighter regulation on microplastic production, such as microbeads (sometimes found in face scrubs), along with more effective means of preventing their release into the environment and removal of existing microplastic are needed.
World Water Day
Our waterways and sources are facing a myriad of issues and they often run deeper than they visually appear. PFAS and microplastics are just two examples of the unseen issues contaminating our rivers, causing health problems, and disrupting ecosystems.
However, today is also a day to remember that we can all play a part in protecting our water. From solutions to being mindful of our own habits, we all have a role to play in saving and improving our water. Learn more about how water stewardship fits into the Rivers Trust’s work here.