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UK Chemical Pollution

Chemical pollution is a major environmental pressure across terrestrial, freshwater, and marine environments. Pollution has been identified as a driver of biodiversity decline globally (IPBES, 2019) and in the UK (State on Nature report, 2023), indicating the importance of improving understanding of the environmental exposure and impacts of chemical pollution within the UK.

Role of JNCC

JNCC works in partnership with the Country Nature Conservation Bodies. Chemical pollution is a new work area for JNCC, and we are currently working towards the formation of an Inter-Agency Chemicals Group. JNCC also closely collaborates with the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra), the devolved administrations, regulators and research bodies.

JNCC's chemical pollution work focuses on:

  • Providing advice to Government, its agencies and other bodies on the impact of chemical pollution on biodiversity.
  • Providing evidence, occasionally through commissioned research, regarding the impacts of chemical pollution on biodiversity.

JNCC’s Environmental Pollution Team’s current work on chemical pollution includes:

  • Development of the Inter-Agency Chemical Group (IACG) as a method for connecting conservation bodies; for knowledge sharing, co-ordination and development of UK-level advice, shared evidence projects, and initiatives relating to chemical pollution and conservation.
  • The System Level Indicator project, a multi-year project funded by the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra). The project aims to address gaps in understanding and develop a method for interpreting changes seen in the environment, across terrestrial, freshwater, and marine habitats, as a result of chemical exposure.

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UK Chemical Pollution

Chemicals are a part of our everyday lives, providing indisputable benefits to society. However, there are many different types of chemicals entering the environment, such as pharmaceuticals for human and veterinary medicines, flame retardants, pesticides, personal care products, perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) and metals. Chemical pollution enters the environment from a wide range of sources, including wastewater treatment works, industrial and agricultural run-off, household activities and direct disposal into the environment; leading to chemicals being detected within the environment.

Regulations such as UK REACH and the Official Controls (Plant Protection Products) Regulations 2020 are in place to protect human and environmental health from the negative effects of chemicals in the UK. Regulation has led to the removal of some harmful substances from the market, including groups of compounds such as polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), or individual substances such as methiocarb and metaldehyde (molluscicides). Many prohibited substances were removed from the market because of their persistent, bioaccumulative and toxic (PBT) properties. As a result of their persistence in the environment, some prohibited substances are still present and affecting the environment even after their use has stopped; these are often referred to as legacy chemicals.  

Despite the regulations and legislation in place, there are still many unknowns about the effects of chemicals on biodiversity. This is in part because of the huge number of different chemicals available on the market, with over 125,000 of those chemicals registered through REACH. Generally, the registration process for chemicals focuses on the lethal effects of individual substances. However, there is increasing evidence of sub-lethal and population-level effects with knock-on ecosystem impacts. Examples of sub-lethal effects include behavioural changes, reduced immunity, and impaired growth. There are also multiple chemicals present in the environment at the same time, and the effects of these chemical mixtures are not fully understood. 

In addition to the effects of chemical mixtures, there are other pressures acting on the environment, such as climate change. The planet is currently facing a triple planetary crisis with the threats of climate change, environmental pollution and biodiversity loss impacting the environment simultaneously. Climate change, pollution and biodiversity are all interconnected – some of these links are highlighted in the infographic below.

Pollution, Biodiversity and Climate Change infographic, showing how the three are linked and impact the environment

Legislation, policies, and strategies related to chemical pollution can be found on relevant UK devolved administration or UK country nature conservation body (CNCB) websites.

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