Man holds glass beaker full of water over a river

Chemical health and priority substances

Chemical health

0% of our rivers are considered to be in good chemical health. This is where our river water bodies are failing. When we start digging into a long list of chemicals that are known to cause harm, we find that at least some are present in all of our rivers.

A healthy river should be free of contaminants.

Priority hazardous substances

This is where all of our rivers are failing.

Check the map to see your local river, or keep scrolling for more information.

Some chemicals have been designated as priority hazardous substances due to their toxicity, their persistence in the environment (they take a very long time to breakdown) and bioaccumulation in plant and animal tissues, or an equivalent cause for concern.

These persistent chemicals are now widespread and this means that none of our rivers in England are considered to be in healthy state. Of all the chemicals assessed, it is primarily three pollutants that are cause the greatest number of failures:

  • PBDEs (polybrominated diphenyl ethers) - a group of brominated flame retardants;
  • Mercury and its compounds; often airborne from coal-fired power stations, manufacturing, industry and even crematoriums.
  • PFOS (perfluorooctanesulfonic acid and its derivatives) - a group of per-fluorinated chemicals which have been widely used because of their non-stick, water repellent and oil resistant characteristics including in fire-fighting foams and textiles.

It is now internationally recognised that these chemicals are hazardous and their use is now highly regulated or banned. However, these persistent chemicals take many decades to degrade and will continue to enter the environment from legacy sources, such as the breakdown and disposal of old products or atmospheric deposition.

Want to find out more about river health?

The State of Our Rivers report is a comprehensive examination of the threats rivers are facing, and what we can do to save them.

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