19 July, 2023

In years gone by, Britain’s waterways were a haven for biodiversity and nature lovers. Still, after years of exposure to harmful ‘chemical cocktails’ (mixtures of several chemical groups), this is no longer the case.

A recent report by The River Trust found that 0% of England’s rivers are in good chemical health, posing a risk to our wildlife and human health, potentially increasing our chances of developing breast cancer. And while many safe alternatives exist to these chemicals, they remain underfunded and under-used.

With Plastic-Free July upon us, it’s time to take a closer look at the state of our rivers, the impact on our health and what we can all do to set the waves in motion for policy change.   

What is the issue in our rivers now?  Why should we be concerned? 

While our rivers have always contained naturally occurring minerals and chemicals that ebb and flow with the change of seasons (Chloride, Calcium, etc.) – which have been vital to maintaining delicate ecosystems – the current practices of our biggest industries are increasingly placing this balance under threat from PFAS (Per- and poly-fluoroalkyl substances).  

This group of chemicals are known as ‘forever chemicals’ because most do not break down easily in the environment. Prominent examples are PFOS and PFOA, which despite being banned due to their detrimental health effects, are still regularly detected in the environment today, including in waterways. 

There are over 4,700 types of PFAS chemicals, some of which are also endocrine-disrupting chemicals (EDCs). These affect the behaviour of hormones such as oestrogen in the body. Elevated exposure to oestrogen may increase the risk of breast cancer, and exposure to various EDCs throughout life has previously been linked to an increased breast cancer risk.  

Chemical contamination of rivers doesn’t occur in the way many would imagine, with big lorries full of toxic waste being dumped into our waterways. Instead, it’s a silent byproduct of things we use every day. These are prevalent in industries such as medicine, farming and fashion.

The River Trust found that 77% of English river sites where PFAS were found would fail proposed new EU safety standards for surface water. Of these, 42% of sites exceed proposed EU safe levels by more than five times.  

What are chemical cocktails? 

Previous approaches to preventing breast cancer looked at identifying individual chemicals as the root cause. Still, we now know that the contributing factors that may cause cancer are much more complex and layered. This single-entity approach is also unrealistic as numerous chemicals are in the environment, often leading to unintentional exposure.  

This has led researchers to expand beyond looking at chemicals individually. Instead are investigating the impact of mixtures of multiple hazardous substances found in the environment, known as ‘chemical cocktails’. 

Although there may be instances when these chemicals cancel each other out, there are also situations when their combined impact is more hazardous to wildlife and people than the individual harmful chemicals have on their own. At this moment in time, we know that the chemicals in these cocktails can negatively impact the growth, reproduction and survival rates, but there is still a lot that is unknown about the potential impacts on human health.  

According to scientific studies, 1,600 rivers, lakes and groundwater sites across England have been found to contain chemical cocktails that are harmful to wildlife. These studies also identified the presence of up to 101 chemicals in river samples.  Some of the country’s most well-known rivers contain the highest number (Thames, Mersey, Stour, Avon and Trent, amongst others). 

What are the links to breast cancer?  

Given the damaging effects of chemical cocktails on our wildlife (including immune, liver and reproductive issues in marine life), it is little surprise to know that these pollutants can also harm our bodies.  

Certain PFAS are classified as “possibly carcinogenic” by the International Agency for Cancer Research.  Studies have also shown PFAS can increase cancerous and non-cancerous breast cell growth. This is likely to be through disrupting hormone (oestrogen) behaviour. Given this, our exposure to PFAS may promote an increased breast cancer risk.  

What can we do about it?  

The most obvious advice would be to avoid dangerous chemical cocktails altogether. But their widespread nature means this has become nearly impossible for even the most careful among us. We must focus on urging the UK Government to introduce stricter safety standards. We must set a ‘safe level’ for PFAS in UK waters. But also to phase out all PFAS from everything but the most vital.  

It’s a tough battle to take on by ourselves, but together we can do it. Here are three simple things you can do: 

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