What’s Going On Here?

A recent study revealed high levels of PFASs (Perfluoroalkyl and Polyfluoroalkyl Substances) in the livers of otters.

PFASs are known as ‘forever chemicals’ as they don’t break down easily. Instead they accumulate in humans and animals and persist in ecosystems. PFASs are powerful chemicals responsible for the grease and water-resistant properties of a variety of products, from non-stick pans to waterproof clothing. The pollutants contaminate the wider environment by leaching out from these products and into wastewater. PFASs are also present in farmland sludge (used as fertiliser), and directly enter waterways from fields.

What Does This Mean?

Otters are a sentinel species. This means they can reveal risks to human health by providing advance warning of environmental hazards. In this case, they’re indicating that PFASs are causing widespread pollution in Britain’s waterways. The study tested 50 otters and found PFASs in all of them. Levels of certain PFASs were higher in otters living closer to factories where these chemicals are used.

The impact of PFASs on otter health is not yet fully understood. The chemicals are, however, suspected of being one of the reasons behind a recent decline in Welsh otter populations, alongside decreasing prey numbers. Signs of otters, such as footprints and droppings, have dropped by 22% in surveyed sites across Wales.  

Why Should We Care?

The worrying effects of PFASs on human, animal and ecosystem health is not news, yet many consumer goods still rely on them. Now that the UK will not be under EU chemical regulations, NGOs are coming together to pressure the government to phase out the use of PFASs as part of the UK Chemical Strategy

“I would like to think that the respective governments will see the importance of the otter as a barometer of the health of the water environment, and the need to get some more up-to-date information on status.”

Graham Scholey, Otter Biodiversity Expert

The recovery of otters following their near extinction in the 1950s and 60s has been celebrated as a remarkable conservation success story. Scientists express concerns that this has caused “complacency”, and governments need to respond to this worrying discovery.

Be Curious

  • Have a look at CHEM Trust’s website to learn about other chemicals that are of concern to the environment and wildlife.
  • Watch Netflix’s film Dark Waters which talks about the devastating impacts of chemical pollution from the manufacturing of Teflon products. Be sure to also read this article by CHEM Trust which addresses some FAQs.
  • PFASs are present in a huge number of consumer products, from makeup to guitar strings. As consumers, we can actively avoid purchasing them. Give this a read to find out where PFASs are present, and how to avoid them.