Chemical pollution in our rivers

Chemical pollution can come from a wide variety of sources and have serious consequences for aquatic ecosystems and human health. 

No English River is in “good” chemical health. This has serious consequences for aquatic wildlife and raises implications human health. It is, therefore, not surprising that our rivers reflect the global decline in freshwater, with salmon stocks at their lowest recorded levels. Meanwhile, freshwater recreational activities are only becoming more popular, as seen by the boom in open water swimming and paddle sports. The poor quality of our rivers means an increased risk of exposure to chemicals that may impact the health of those who enjoy freshwater recreation.


A particularly worrying type of chemical pollution comes in the form of PFAS, 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. They pose a serious pollution risk, given that they are readily released to the environment, but also because they can take over 1,000 years to degrade. PFAS have been 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.

In our rivers

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.

Due to their known toxicity, the EU is proposing a stricter approach on the level of PFAS that can be deemed safe to aquatic life, using the sum of 24 different PFAS as the new standard.

Required Action

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. Meanwhile, investors from some of the world’s largest firms are now pressuring chemical companies to end production of PFAS as shareholders are increasingly recognizing that they represent an enormous and growing threat to manufacturers’ bottom lines. Moreover, companies such as Apple are committing to phasing out PFAS and even some PFAS manufacturers moving in the right direction, although there is certainly much greater scope to reduce our reliance on these damaging chemicals.

We are calling for the government to use the upcoming UK Chemicals Strategy as the chance to take the lead on fighting the harm caused by PFAS and other forms of chemical pollution. A ban on all but the most necessary uses of PFAS, combined with stricter regulation and much better monitoring would be a great start to combating the harm that these chemicals cause to our rivers.

You can read more about the recent analysis in the articles below.

Toxic timebomb of ‘forever chemicals’ in England rivers

UK risks falling behind Europe in controlling ‘forever chemicals’

Back to top