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Sullied Sediments

Toothpaste, soap and painkillers putting waterways under threat

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

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

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

Known as ‘watch list chemicals’, they have so-called ‘gender bender’ effects. Wildlife originally meant to be either male or female begin to show both characteristics. This in turn affects the reproduction of fish and other organisms, and therefore affects the population.

Watch list chemicals have been identified by the EU as potentially toxic, or shown to alter the hormone balance in organisms living in both the sediment and waters above.

Now, a €4.4-million Europe-wide project, led by the University of Hull, aims to discover more information about the impact and presence of these chemicals and offer solutions to improve the removal of the chemicals from waste water treatment plants, before they enter the waterways.

The project will also raise awareness among the public in the hope they will make informed choices about their future purchases.

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

Many of the chemicals come from our industrial past, but our current activities still contribute. The public has the potential to prevent such chemicals entering the environment by careful choice of the products they choose, and how they dispose of them

Professor Jeanette Rotchell, University of Hull

“Obviously, we don’t want people to stop taking the contraceptive pill, but over the next year there will be activities to see if we can convince people to change their purchasing so we can monitor this to see a change in levels. It’s about people having impact on their local environment and reducing these chemicals by changing their habits.”

Professor Rotchell says as well as chemicals entering the water through drains, activities such as dredging for navigation, or as part of flood alleviation can result in the re-suspension of the chemicals back into the flowing water, once again having an effect on aquatic life.

The project, called Sullied Sediments, has been funded by the North Sea Region programme of the European Regional Development Fund.

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 €2.2m with a further €2.2m

The team is running a pilot scheme to reduce three of these chemicals arriving at waste water treatment plants in three regions across Europe.

These are in the North Sea regions of the Humber, Elbe in Holland and Scheldt in Germany.

To find out more, please visit the Sullied Sediments website.

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