How is chemical pollution threatening our Wild Isles?

From majestic killer whales (orcas) and rutting red deers, to playful otters and boxing hares, there is no doubt that the UK has plenty of astonishing species, and therefore has plenty to protect. Throughout the Wild Isles series, we are given hard-hitting reminders of just how much the UK’s natural world has already suffered, with a littering of statistics on diminishing wildlife populations and habitat losses. From the work carried out here at Fidra, we know that many of the species highlighted across the episodes are threatened by chemicals used in our everyday products. But, we also know that solutions are possible.

Otters & Forever Chemicals

‘Forever Chemicals’ is a term used to refer to a large group of synthetic chemicals known as Per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, or ‘PFAS’, used in a wide variety of everyday products. These forever chemicals, as the name suggests, are extremely persistent and can build up to harmful concentration levels in people and wildlife. Sadly, this includes one of the UK’s most iconic species – the otter.

Research conducted in 2022 found PFAS in the livers of all 50 otters tested from across England and Wales (1). Given the established connection between PFAS and immunotoxicity in otters (1; 2), this is worrying news. When investigating possible sources, the study concluded that effluent from wastewater treatment works and runoff from land treated with sewage sludge fertilisers were the most significant pathways. The study also determined that given the high concentration levels and mixture of PFAS found during analysis, it was possible for PFAS pollution to be “adversely impacting otter health”.

To help protect the UK’s otter population, we need legislation to end all avoidable use of PFAS in our products and prevent further pollution to our waterways. At Fidra, we’re continuing to call on the government for greater action on PFAS to protect our otters and all other wildlife affected by harmful and unnecessary forever chemicals.

Gannets & Flame Retardants

Flame retardants are another group of chemicals used in many of our day-to-day products and linked with numerous health and environmental concerns. Whether it be through product manufacture, use or disposal, flame retardant chemicals are frequently lost to the environment. Once there, they can travel far from source, accumulate and impact the health of vulnerable wildlife species.

As shown on Wild Isles, gannets are one of the UK’s most impressive seabirds. Reaching speeds of up to 60 miles an hour, these striking birds are a true spectacle to see hunting off the coastline (3). But even far out at sea, gannets are not protected from chemical pollution. In 2012, the Centre for Ecology and Hydrology carried out a long-term study to look at the amount of different flame-retardant chemicals found in the eggshells of gannets (4). If their presence in gannet eggshells wasn’t alarming enough, the results also unearthed a pattern. The study found a correlation between the amount of flame retardants detected and public use of these same chemicals over time. As one type of flame retardant was restricted, the levels when down, and as other flame retardants became more popular, levels went up. The flame retardants found in the gannet eggshells were following the impact of legislation over time and highlighting the impact of our chemical use on the environment.

Why is this concerning? Well, as with PFAS, many flame retardants are persistent and won’t go away lightly. Flame retardants have also been linked with numerous health concerns for wildlife, including hormone disruption and impaired fertility (5). Flame retardants don’t belong in gannets, or any other species, and that’s why we need stronger regulation to protect against these environmental pollutants.

Save our Wild Isles

Chemical pollution can be found across our Wild Isles. Whether it be PFAS spread on our soils through contaminated sewage sludge, or flame retardants infiltrating their way into remote gannet colonies. In a recent review, 100% English rivers failed chemical pollution tests (6). Last year scientists warned that we have already crossed the planetary boundary for chemical pollution, and the UN now recognises pollution as one of five main drivers of biodiversity loss (7, 8). To truly save our wild isles, we must address chemical pollution.

Luckily, there are a number of opportunities for the UK to turn the tide on chemical pollution. Due out this year, the UK’s Chemical Strategy will outline how we manage chemicals following our exit from the European Union. The UK’s Environmental Improvement Plan 2023 also includes numerous commitments for reducing chemical pollution. Right now, we need the UK Government to address chemical pollution with the urgency it needs. We need a strong Chemicals Strategy with public and environmental health at its heart. We need existing commitments to be met and more ambitious targets to be set. And this is exactly we at Fidra are calling for.

How can you help? You can keep this conversation going. Start by sharing this blog with your friends and family. Then follow-us on Twitter and Facebook to stay up to date on latest developments and opportunities to get involved. Every like, share, and tea-time chat helps raise awareness of the issue and move chemical pollution up the political agenda. Now more than ever, every voice matters.



1. O’Rourke, E., Hynes, J., Losada, S., Barber, J.L., Pereira, M.G., Kean, E.F., Hailer, F. and Chadwick, E.A., 2022. Anthropogenic drivers of variation in concentrations of perfluoroalkyl substances in otters (Lutra lutra) from England and Wales. Environmental Science & Technology56(3), pp.1675-1687.

2. Fair, P.A. and Houde, M., 2018. Poly-and perfluoroalkyl substances in marine mammals. In Marine Mammal Ecotoxicology (pp. 117-145). Academic Press.

3. Scottish Seabird Centre, 2023. Northern Gannet. [Online] Available at:

4. Crosse, J.D., Shore, R.F., Jones, K.C. and Pereira, M.G., 2012. Long term trends in PBDE concentrations in gannet (Morus bassanus) eggs from two UK colonies. Environmental Pollution161, pp.93-100.

5. Fidra, 2019. Flame Proof Gannets: Tracing Toxic Chemicals through our Wildlife. [Online] Available at:

6. Wildlife and Countryside LINK, 2022. Chemical Pollution: The Silent Killer of UK Rivers. [Online] Available at:,England%20achieved%20good%20ecological%20status.&text=Aquatic%20invertebrates%20spend%20most%2C%20if,of%20their%20lives%20in%20rivers.

7. Persson, L., Carney Almroth, B.M., Collins, C.D., Cornell, S., de Wit, C.A., Diamond, M.L., Fantke, P., Hassellöv, M., MacLeod, M., Ryberg, M.W. and Søgaard Jørgensen, P., 2022. Outside the safe operating space of the planetary boundary for novel entities. Environmental science & technology, 56(3), pp.1510-1521.

8. IPBES, 2019. The global assessment report on biodiversity and ecosystem services. [Online] Available at: