Norfolk's rivers threatened by ‘chemical cocktail’ - including cocaine

Paddleboarding on the River Wensum with Norwich Paddleboard Hire.

The report found that "a ‘chemical cocktail’ of sewage, agricultural waste, and plastic is polluting the country's waterways - as well as emerging pollutants like pharmaceuticals, caffeine and cocaine. - Credit: Ella Wilkinson

One of Norfolk’s greatest assets - its rivers - is threatened by a cocktail of cocaine, caffeine, oestrogen, painkillers and other pollutants, conservationists have warned. 

The dire warning comes as MPs from the Environmental Audit Committee [EAC] publish a report on the water quality of the country’s rivers, which claims that “not a single river in England has received a clean bill of health for chemical contamination”. 

The report found that "a ‘chemical cocktail’ of sewage, agricultural waste, and plastic is polluting the country's waterways - as well as emerging pollutants like pharmaceuticals, caffeine and cocaine.

Jonah Tosney, technical director at the Norfolk Rivers Trust, said the report’s damning findings came as “absolutely no surprise to anybody who works with rivers, we all know it - and it’s quite depressing.

Jonah Tosney, operations director of Norfolk  Rivers Trust

Jonah Tosney, operations director of Norfolk Rivers Trust - Credit: Norfolk Rivers Trust

“There’s no doubt at all that almost all our rivers are pretty badly damaged. Some of that’s through loss of habitat and destruction of habitat, but a lot of that is through water quality and what we’re putting into our rivers - and it’s really not good.”

Mr Tosney said the river Wensum, which runs through the heart of Norwich, is in a particularly bad state of health, caused by pesticides and fertilisers and he said the region’s sewerage system was no longer fit for purpose.

“Sewage works are a huge, huge problem. They’re just not designed and not fit for the size of the population we’ve got now, but also what we’re now putting down them. 

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“I don’t know to what extent prescription drugs have gone up over the last few years - but it’s massive.

“We’ve got things getting into the rivers like cocaine, caffeine, oestrogen, painkillers - you name it.

“It’s all coming through the sewage works because they’re not designed to deal with that stuff - along with microplastics - and all those chemicals are affecting the biology and the actual behaviour of the invertebrates and the fish in the rivers."

A spokeswoman for Anglian Water rebutted this claim however, saying: “The water recycling process acts as a conduit not a cause for substances like pharmaceuticals and microplastics getting into our rivers.

“The technology needed to remove the residuals of prescription drugs from the water treatment process does not even exist, and if it did, it would add millions to customers' bills.

“That’s why, for a long time we’ve advocated that prevention at source is the only way to deal with these issues, not an ‘end of pipe’ solution.”

Norfolk MPs Jerome Mayhew and Duncan Baker both sit on the EAC - and urged action in response to the report’s findings. 

North Norfolk’s Mr Baker said: “The underinvestment in our sewage network is plainly evident and the result is this dreadful level of contamination.

North Norfolk MP Duncan Baker

North Norfolk MP Duncan Baker - Credit: Richard Townshend Photography

“We must treat the wastewater and pour investment into this which is what the government is now very much addressing.

“Better monitoring of the water companies’ behaviour, punishment for abusing the environment and more investment into the Environment Agency are sensible measures I will be continuing to campaign for.”

Broadland’s Mr Mayhew said: “Regulators have made a great deal of progress since the 1990s in cleaning up and monitoring coastal waters so that they are fit for bathing.

Jerome Mayhew

Broadland MP Jerome Mayhew - Credit: UK Parliament

“However, this progress must now be extended to rivers - including the Norfolk Broads.

“Our inquiry has uncovered multiple failures in the monitoring, governance and enforcement of water quality, and these findings will need to be addressed.”

Martha Meek, development manager at the River Waveney Trust, said the river - popular with canoeists, paddleboarders, swimmers and walkers - faced “all the problems highlighted in the [EAC] report”.

The team at Norfolk and Suffolk's River Waveney Trust

River Waveney Trust development manager Martha Meek and catchment officer Emily Winter, at a potential site for wetland creation. - Credit: River Waveney Trust

Both Mr Tosney and Ms Meek said the Environment Agency [EA] needed more funding.

“I really do think that's critical,” said Ms Meek. 

“Because without the EA there to carry out enforcement actions, it's almost like there's a green light for people to carry out small pollution incidents.

She said smaller pollution incidents seemed to have become accepted.

“It's just seen as something that happens, and I think those are the things that the EA really need the funding to be able to follow up on and actually regulate and enforce."

An EA spokeswoman said the agency’s efforts were focused on pollution incidents which pose the greatest risk to the environment and the organisation was looking at how best to use its resources. 

Addressing the EAC’s report, the Anglian Water spokeswoman said: “We agree with the urgent call for action by the EAC to address the health of UK rivers."

She said the company had itself raised several of the issues contained in the report when giving evidence to the committee last year, and that Anglian Water was committed to “ensuring environmental protection and prosperity”.

She added however: “The real improvements we all want to see in our waterways are not something we can achieve without equal effort from others, permission for increased investment from our regulators, and support from the Government in creating a comprehensive plan to transform our environment in the long term.”

How could cocaine and oestrogen be affecting Norfolk’s aquatic wildlife?

A 2018 journal-published study found that tiny amounts of cocaine flushed into rivers cause eels to become hyperactive and to suffer from muscle wastage, impaired gills and hormonal changes.

Jonah Tosney, technical director at the Norfolk Rivers Trust, said an even more concerning finding was the polluting impact of oestrogen and other chemicals from hormone replacement therapy (HRT) and birth control. 

“That comes through the human body, and that changes the behaviour and biology of microorganisms and fish, and it's going up the foodchain to otters. 

An otter keeping cool at the Hunstanton Sea Life Sanctuary. Picture: Ian Burt

Otters are among the creatures threatened by chemicals in the country's waterways. - Credit: Ian Burt

“Otters are finding it harder to breed over successive generations - their penises are getting smaller and that’s as a result of the amount of oestrogen coming through sewage works, we think.”

Mr Tosney said these effects could be observed nationally, but both were taking place in Norfolk. 

The shrinking reproductive organs of otters, caused by chemicals designed to target oestrogen receptors, was noted by two of the UK’s leading otter researchers, at Cardiff University, in 2013.

What projects has the Norfolk Rivers Trust been working on?

The Glaven Beaver Project aims to reintroduce a breeding pair of beavers into the Upper Glaven area of north Norfolk.

Led by the NRT, the project has seen the beavers reintroduced into a private 5.6ha enclosure, where they and the habitat are closely monitored.

A map showing projects carried out in Norfolk by the Norfolk Rivers Trust

A map showing projects carried out in Norfolk by the Norfolk Rivers Trust - Credit: Norfolk Rivers Trust

At Wymondham, fish migration routes have been restored on the river Tiffey - when, in 2018, a redundant weir from a brush factory was removed to enable the fish to pass through. 

Meanders have meanwhile been installed using wooden debris along the course of the river Stiffkey at Little Snoring, where a stretch of the waterway had become dark and canalised. 

And another project has seen Himalayan balsam, a non-native invasive plant, removed from the catchment area of the river Wensum. 

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