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More than 50 chemicals discovered in water off Hampshire and West Sussex coasts

Cocaine hydrochloride, University of Portsmouth’s Institute for Marine Sciences © University of Portsmouth

Researchers testing water quality in and around two harbours say a worrying number of chemicals have been identified, including prescribed and illegal drugs

An ongoing study looking at water quality in and around Chichester and Langstone harbours has revealed high levels of potentially harmful chemicals.

In a novel collaboration between local interest groups and Portsmouth and Brunel Universities, hundreds of samples were gathered off the coasts of Hampshire and West Sussex by the Clean Harbours Partnership (CHP) campaign group last year as part of Project Spotlight.

University of Portsmouth and Brunel University London researchers analysed 288 samples and have so far detected more than 50 compounds across 22 sites. These include pharmaceuticals, and recreational drugs.

The team also discovered pesticides, including simazine, propamocarb, imidacloprid, and clothianidin which is a banned substance in the UK.

Professor Alex Ford, from the University of Portsmouth’s School of Biological Sciences, said: “We know there are billions of litres of sewage discharges annually around the UK but the impact of these discharges are not clearly understood.

“This project is enabling us to determine what chemical contaminants are in our marine life and coastal waters.

“We have found a large variety of prescribed and illegal drugs plus a variety of pesticides in coastal waters and marine organisms, such as crabs and oysters.

“This is important, because we know that aquatic ecosystems are under threat from pharmaceuticals and farming practices such as biocides and fertilisers.”

Professor Ford’s previous research revealed tiny quantities of antidepressants in water can affect wildlife, such as crustaceans and molluscs. It also found drugs will affect the behaviour and biological make-up of these creatures, including changing colour, growth and reproducing less or more.

He added: “There is a staggering list of prescription drugs passed from humans to wastewater treatment plants and into receiving streams, estuaries, or oceans by direct consumption, metabolism, and excretion or by toilet flushing of old prescriptions.

“The release of human pharmaceuticals into aquatic ecosystems is an environmental problem we should consider seriously.”

A post storm seawater sample taken by CHP near an outflow pipe from Budds Farm treatment works, near Langstone, showed a reading of 380,000 colony forming units (cfu) per 100ml of E. coli, which is 760 times safe levels as set out under the European Bathing Water Directive. Levels above 500cfu/100ml signify a risk to human health. 

Scientists will now compare the concentrations of these pollutants, found during last year's drought, to those taken at the same sewage discharge locations after combined sewer overflow (CSOs) discharges had been activated by rainfall.

“Chemical pollution from CSOs is becoming a real cause for concern due to the number of chemicals that are being found all over the environment and not just in the UK,” explained Brunel’s Dr Tom Miller.

“It is important that the public are becoming more aware of the problem, and it has been a really great opportunity to work with locals in the area and address some of their concerns surrounding the issue.”

Project Spotlight was crowdfunded through the University of Portsmouth and Brunel University London by CHP and its community partners. The aim is to reveal what chemical contaminants are impacting important coastal environments and as a result influence change.

CHP co-founder, Rob Bailey, said: “Thanks to community funding, we are starting to get an insight into the cocktail of chemicals polluting our sea water and their sources. Some pesticides seem to have been lingering for several years and the presence of partly digested antidepressants, drugs for type 2 diabetes and bladder infections is concerning. So little is known about their impact on marine life. 

“The sheer scale of sewage discharges into our water courses has shocked the public. It looks like the debate is set to continue as we learn what’s in the water and how ineffective the authorities have been at managing such obvious threats to our precious environment.”

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