Two banned toxic chemicals found at more than 100 river sites in UK

Two chemicals banned for being too toxic to wildlife but approved for use in pet medicines are polluting rivers, an investigation has found.

Permethrin and imidacloprid – used to kill parasites like fleas and ticks on pets – were banned in Europe in 2002 and 2018 as a danger to aquatic life and pollinators.

Along with fipronil, another insecticide found in 483 pet products, at least one of these chemicals was found in 109 of 283 river sites tested by the Environment Agency at levels above accepted safe limits for wildlife.

The Wildlife and Countryside Link found fipronil at 105 sites, despite it never having been used in UK agriculture. Some sites showed concentrations 100 times above the safe level and two at more than 1,000 times.

The River Don at Sprotbrough.The River Don at Sprotbrough.
The River Don at Sprotbrough.

Imidacloprid was found at 22 sites, with half showing concentrations above the safe limits. Permethrin was found at four, with all sites between three and seven times the safe level.

Studies from the UK, Spain and US have identified pet medicines as a likely source of fipronil and other insecticides in water.

They believe the toxins got into water by washing treated pets and their bedding, urine or faeces or by treated dogs swimming in rivers.

Richard Benwell, chief executive of the Wildlife and Countryside Link, said: “Giving pets the highest standard of care need not come at the expense of nature but these findings suggest too many insecticides and other toxic chemicals are ending up in our rivers.

“The Government could show ban these harmful substances to support vets and animal lovers in shifting to less-polluting alternatives.”

According to a 2021 survey by the British Veterinary Association, 98 per cent of vets said they were concerned about the effect on the environment of chemicals used in pet medicines.

Andre Menache, a veterinary surgeon and director of the Progressive Vets Association, said: “We have known about the environmental impacts of parasiticides for many years.

“We need to move beyond the plethora of voluntary guidance that exists if we want to reverse wildlife decline. That is why the PVA is supporting the call for a ban on these chemicals.”

Along with environmental groups including Pesticide Action Network, Greenpeace, the RSPB, The Rivers Trust and Wildfish, the PVA are calling on the Government to ban all pesticides from pet medicines if they are not permitted in agriculture.

They say there are safer alternatives – pets would not have to go without treatment.

Josie Cohen, of Pesticide Action Network, said: “It simply makes no sense to block these chemicals from being used on crops to protect the environment while allowing them to be routinely applied by millions of pet owners every month.

“If we want to tackle chemical pollution, then we urgently need to close this loophole. Where alternatives exist, which they absolutely do in the case of pet medicines, chemicals known to be harming wildlife should be taken off the market.”

The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs was contacted for comment.