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Toothpaste, soap and painkillers putting waterways under threat

27 April 2017

Jeanette Rotchell

Household products, including toothpaste, soaps, slug pellets and common drugs, may be putting many of Britain’s inland waterways under threat.

Chemicals found in some personal care products and pharmaceuticals are accumulating in rivers and canals as a result of day-to-day activities and industry.

These chemicals, which include the contraceptive pill and painkiller diclofenac, have been shown to be harmful to wildlife.

Known as ‘watch list chemicals’, they have the potential to disrupt hormone balances in wildlife, resulting in organisms having both male and female characteristics. This in turn affects the reproduction of fish and other organisms, with known effects for the whole population.

The watch list chemicals have been identified by the EU as potentially toxic, or shown to alter the hormone balance in aquatic life found in both the sediment and waters above.

Now, a €4 million Europe-wide project, led by the University of Hull, will discover more information about the impact and presence of these chemicals and offer solutions to improve the removal of these chemicals from waste water treatment plants before they enter our waterways.

The team is running pilot schemes aimed at reducing the levels of three of these chemicals arriving at waste water treatment plants across the North Sea Region. The project will do this, in part, by raising awareness among the public in the hope they will make informed choices about their future purchases. The pilot schemes will be carried out in three river catchments including the Humber, the Elbe in Germany and the Scheldt in Belgium/Netherlands.

Professor Jeanette Rotchell, lead researcher, at the University of Hull, said: “Our inland waterways have been environments for the disposal of chemicals for decades. Gradually these chemicals have accumulated in the sediments of our river and canal beds.” Common examples include chemicals found in slug pellets, which get washed away into drains, and ultimately into our waterways.

“Many of the chemicals come from our industrial past, but our current activities still contribute. The public has the power to reduce what chemicals they are releasing into the environment by carefully choosing products they use, and how they dispose of them.”

“Obviously, we don’t want people to stop taking prescribed pharmaceuticals, but over the next three years we will take action to see if we can convince people to reconsider buying personal care products and household goods that contain these chemicals. It’s about people having impact on their local environment and reducing these chemicals by changing their consumption habits.”

Professor Rotchell says that understanding more about these chemicals in the sediments is also important for activities such as dredging or as part of flood alleviation schemes, where re-suspending them once again may have an effect on aquatic life.

The project, called Sullied Sediments, has been funded by the European Regional Development Fund through the Interreg VB North Sea Region Programme.

Led by the University of Hull, it includes public, private and third sector organisations from the UK, Germany, Belgium and the Netherlands, who have match-funded the grant with a further €2 million.

More information on the project.

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