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Calls for better river safety after ‘chemical cocktails’ found in the Waveney and sewer spills report

Nature groups are calling for stronger safeguards after the water quality of the River Waveney was found to have five “chemical cocktails” in it as part of an Environmental Agency report into our waterways.

The findings follow a BBC report which showed the extent of storm overflows of sewage nationally – including points at Brewers Green, Dickleburgh, Thorndon and Tharston.

Figures from the report showed the sewer overflow at Brewers Green spilled 15 times last year for a total of 310 hours, while one in Tharston spilled 24 times for a total of 388 hours.

The River Waveney. Picture: Mecha Morton
The River Waveney. Picture: Mecha Morton

An overflow at Dickleburgh Moor spilled 24 times for a total of 233 hours and one at Thorndon spilled 32 times for a total of 568 hours.

Richard Benwell, chief executive of Wildlife and Countryside Link, which is England’s largest environment and wildlife coalition, said a harmful chemical cocktail was being stirred up in UK rivers, putting wildlife and public health at risk.

He said: “Government regulates and monitors chemicals individually, ignoring the cocktail effect. But our research shows that toxic combinations of pesticides, pharmaceuticals and chemicals are polluting rivers up and down the country.”

The testing of a 50-mile stretch of the River Waveney, which marks the boundary of Norfolk and Suffolk, took place at Ellingham Mill, and showed six different chemicals in the water in five hazardous mixtures.

The chemicals were perfluorooctane sulfonate, perfluorooctanoate, perfluorobutane sulfonic acid, the pesticide 2, 4-D and the commonly used painkiller, Ibuprofen.

Now a group of charities, including the Wildlife and Countryside Link, The Rivers Trust and The National Trust, have launched a Chemical Cocktail Campaign, urging the Government to take a much more ambitious approach to regulating harmful chemicals.

In response to the BBC report, an Anglian Water spokesman said: “Everyday, Anglian Water recycles more than one billion litres of used water and returns it safely to the environment.

“When it rains heavily, our sewers can become inundated with far more water than they were designed to cope with. As part of their design, sewers have safety release valves known as storm overflows, which take pressure off the system by releasing excess water into rivers and the sea.

“Storm overflows protect homes and businesses from flooding because, otherwise, the system would go back up through toilets, drains and manholes.

“Because they operate after heavy rainfall, we know the vast majority of what comes out of storm overflows is rainwater.

“Sewers have not been built like this for decades, but it will take time to replumb the Victorian system. We’re already spending £200 million between 2020 and 2025 to reduce storm overflow spills, but we know people want us to go faster, so, between 2025 and 2030, we are planning to go even further and, if our plans are approved by regulators, we’ll triple the amount of investment.”

On the chemicals found in the River Waveney, the spokesperson said Anglian Water strongly welcomed the campaign and joined those calling for the Government to take further action.

The spokesperson added: “We are working with the Environment Agency to investigate the issues around the River Waveney and to see how chemicals are impacting the health of the river and crucially the industry as a whole is working with The EA to see how they can be removed from our nation’s rivers.

“Chemicals can enter the water supply and treatment process through a number of routes, including runoff from land which picks up chemicals from pesticides as well as manufacturing and domestic everyday use.

“Products such as waterproof clothing and kitchenware contain chemicals known for their water, grease and stain repellent properties, but these can be released into wastewater when the products are washed.

“We're working with water companies and the Environment Agency to investigate the impacts further, and where we can we are accelerating schemes to help reduce the impact. However, existing waste water treatment technology can’t always remove these chemicals so it’s vitally important that we address these chemicals at source to help protect our environment.”

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