How does chemical pollution impact UK wildlife?

The UK is failing to protect its precious wildlife from toxic chemicals.

Chemical contaminants that infiltrate our environments are a grave concern for all ecosystems. These chemicals are used in many everyday items like furniture, food packaging and clothing, with pollution stemming from a variety of origins, including industrial activities, agricultural practices, and improper waste management. Toxic chemicals enter the environment during the production, use, and disposal of these everyday items, eventually ending up in our vulnerable wildlife. From bees to bottlenose dolphins, every UK habitat is facing the threat of pollution. This is the result of poor protections, weak regulations, and lack of enforcement. To save our species, we must stop pollution at source.

In 2022 scientists warned that we have already crossed the safe limit for chemical pollution1. Toxic chemical flame retardants from furniture are found in the air we breathe2. Forever chemicals PFAS in clothing, food packaging and cookware3 find their way to rivers, and hormone disrupting bisphenols in receipts4 reach our soil, air and beaches.

Finding these chemicals in wildlife is a shocking reminder of how persistent and far-reaching pollution can be. For example, PFAS that were produced decades ago have been found 3,000 deep in arctic waters5 and are highly prevalent within polar bears6.

Let’s look a little closer to home, and explore how UK wildlife has been impacted by chemical pollution…

Chemical pollution is contributing to the steep decline in urban and rural wildlife

The driving force behind 1/3 of the world’s food production7, pollinators such as bees are a clear example of why our wildlife must be protected from toxic chemicals. The UK is home to over 270 species of bee, but unfortunately many of these are in decline due to loss of foraging habitat8 and pesticide use9. Studies have found bees contain PFAS and many types of pesticides, both of which can cause colony level impacts and mortality9,10. Many pesticides are highly toxic to bees and other wildlife, but continue to be used in the UK, even after they have been restricted, e.g. thiamethoxam. Fidra’s new project PFAS in Pesticides highlights the use of PFAS as an ingredient in pesticides, mixing chemical contaminants together with unknown consequences.

The UK’s favourite species, the hedgehog, is also suffering from chemical pollution. Persistent flame-retardant chemicals and pesticides have been detected in hedgehogs11, capable of causing toxicological effects that compromise the fitness and survival of the species11.

Up in the sky, birds are not sheltered from this, and experience similar stories to those above. Apex predators such as buzzards have been found to contain PFAS in their livers12.

Our rivers and freshwater species face the burden of chemical pollution

Many chemical inputs enter river habitats that are rich with wildlife. Eurasian otters are the top predators of our rivers, and therefore can act as indicators of chemical levels in the environment. A recent study found PFAS in all otter livers tested across England and Wales13. Most of the PFAS found in the otters’ river habitat originated from wastewater treatment works and from sewage sludge spread on farmland13. Read more about the contaminants present in sewage sludge here.

Further down the food chain, freshwater fish such as roach, trout and bream have been found to contain chemical cocktails12,14. These cocktails include a mix of PFAS, pharmaceuticals, pesticides, and bisphenols, that are known to be toxic to aquatic organisms. Bisphenols are capable of hormone disruption, including altering the sex of fish15.

Otter in river

Pollution pouring into our seas

Rivers flow to the sea and carry many of these chemical pollutants into the marine environment. Many marine fish have been found to contain chemicals such as PFAS, including herring, cod and mackerel 16, 17,18. It is no surprise that the predators preying on these fish are consequently exposed to chemicals, with both harbour and grey seals displaying levels of PFAS and flame retardants12,19. These chemicals can impact hormonal function and regulation and can be transferred maternally to offspring impacting future populations20.

Larger marine mammals such as orca and harbour porpoise are particularly at risk as they are at the top of the food chain and contaminants can accumulate in their blubber. PFAS, flame retardants, and legacy pollutants have been found in these species, increasing the chance of disease and reproductive failure21,22,23. These species demonstrate how persistent some of these chemicals really are – with legacy pollutants banned over 20 years ago still being found in high levels in orcas 21.


Those above the water are also impacted, with seabirds such as shags, showing levels of PFAS24 and lesser black-backed gulls showing levels of flame retardants25. Even the UK’s northern gannets breeding on the uninhabited island of Bass Rock have not escaped and are contaminated with flame retardants that come from furniture and electronics26, as well as forever chemicals, PFAS27. This is the largest colony of gannets in the world but it has already been decimated by bird flu and faces the pressure of chemical pollution. It is our duty in the UK to protect our precious wildlife from further harm. 

These are just a snapshot of species that have been tested for chemical contaminants, it is likely that many more of the UK’s wildlife are facing the burdens of unnecessary chemical use. But it’s not too late to save our wildlife, by having better controls on chemicals and robust regulation we can stop pollution at source.

Other countries are already making moves to crackdown on toxic chemicals, with the EU proposing a broad-ranging PFAS ban28 and regulations on hormone-disrupting bisphenols29. California and other US states have already moved away from harmful flame retardants30, and it is time for the UK to catch up on chemical controls!

Fidra along with health and environmental charities have long been calling for better regulation and closer alignment with EU on chemicals to protect us from pollution. Let’s save our wildlife and prevent pollution at source with better protections and tighter controls on chemicals.

Learn more about Fidra’s Chemical Pollution projects and watch our new Chemicals in Wildlife video: 


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Photo credits: Otter –  Photo by Andreas Schantl on Unsplash. Orca –  Photo by Mike Doherty on Unsplash.