One of Norfolk’s biggest assets – its rivers – is threatened by a cocktail of cocaine, caffeine, estrogen, painkillers and other pollutants, conservationists have warned.
The dreadful 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 health declaration for chemical pollution”.
The report found that “a ‘chemical cocktail’ of wastewater, agricultural waste and plastic pollutes the country’s waterways – as well as new pollutants such as drugs, caffeine and cocaine.
Jonah Tosney, technical director at the Norfolk Rivers Trust, said the report’s judgmental findings came as “absolutely no surprise to anyone working on rivers, we all know that – and it’s pretty depressing.
“There’s no doubt at all that almost all of our rivers are pretty badly damaged. Some of it is through habitat loss and habitat destruction, but much of it is through water quality and what we put into our rivers – and it is really not good. “
Sir. Tosney said the river Wensum, which runs through the heart of Norwich, is in a particularly poor state of health, caused by pesticides and fertilizers, and he said the region’s sewer system was no longer fit for purpose.
‘Sewerage is a huge, huge problem. They are just not designed and do not fit the size of the population we have now, but also what we are now laying them down.
“I do not know to what extent prescription drugs have increased over the last few years – but it’s massive.
“We’ve got things coming out of the rivers like cocaine, caffeine, estrogen, painkillers – you name it.
“It all comes through the sewage plants because they are not designed to handle those things – along with microplastics – and all of these chemicals affect the biology and the actual behavior of invertebrates and the fish in the rivers.”
However, a spokeswoman for Anglian Water rejected this claim, saying: “The water recycling process acts as a channel, not a cause for substances like drugs and microplastics to enter our rivers.
“The technology needed to remove the remnants 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 we’re been arguing for a long time that prevention at source is the only way to deal with these problems, not an ‘end of pipe’ solution.”
Norfolk MPs Jerome Mayhew and Duncan Baker both sit on the EAC – and called for action in response to the report’s findings.
North Baker’s Mr Baker said: “The underinvestment in our wastewater network is clear and the result is this terrible level of pollution.
“We need to treat wastewater and pour investment into it, which the government is now largely addressing.
“Better monitoring of the water companies’ behavior, punishment for environmental abuse and more investments in the Danish Environmental Protection Agency are sensible measures that I will continue to fight for.”
Broadland’s Mr Mayhew said: “Regulators have made great strides since the 1990s in cleaning and monitoring coastal waters so that they are suitable for bathing.
“But this progress must now be extended to rivers – including the Norfolk Broads.
“Our study has revealed several errors in the monitoring, control and enforcement of water quality, and these results need to be addressed.”
Martha Meek, development manager at the River Waveney Trust, said the river – popular with canoeists, paddleboarders, swimmers and hikers – faced “all the problems highlighted in [EAC] report”.
Both Mr Tosney and Mrs Meek told the Environmental Protection Agency [EA] needed more funds.
“I really think it’s critical,” Ms Meek said.
“Because without EA to perform enforcement actions, it’s almost as if there’s a green light for people to perform small pollution incidents.
She said minor pollution incidents appeared to have been accepted.
“It’s just seen as something that happens, and I think those are the things that EA really needs funding to be able to follow up on and actually regulate and enforce.”
A spokeswoman for EA said the agency’s efforts were focused on pollution incidents that pose the greatest risk to the environment and that the organization was looking at how best to use its resources.
In connection with the EAC report, the spokeswoman for Anglian Water said: “We agree with the urgent call for action by the EAC to address the health of British rivers.”
She said the company itself had raised several of the issues contained in the report when they testified before the committee last year and that Anglian Water was committed to “ensuring environmental protection and prosperity”.
However, she added: “The real improvements we all want to see in our waterways are not something we can achieve without the same efforts of 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 run. “
How can cocaine and estrogen affect Norfolk’s aquatic wildlife?
A 2018 journal-published study showed that small amounts of cocaine flushed into rivers cause eels to become hyperactive and suffer from muscle wasting, weakened gills and hormonal changes.
Jonah Tosney, technical director at the Norfolk Rivers Trust, said an even more worrying finding was the contaminating effect of estrogen and other chemicals from hormone replacement therapy (HRT) and contraception.
“It comes through the human body, and it changes the behavior and biology of microorganisms and fish, and it goes up the food chain to otters.
“Otters have found it harder to breed on successive generations – their penis gets smaller, and that’s because of the amount of estrogen that comes through sewers, we think.”
Sir. Tosney said these effects could be observed nationally, but both occurred in Norfolk.
The shrinking reproductive organs of otters, caused by chemicals designed to target estrogen receptors, were noticed by two of Britain’s leading otter researchers at Cardiff University in 2013.
What projects has the Norfolk Rivers Trust worked on?
The Glaven Beaver Project aims to reintroduce a breeding pair of beavers into the Upper Glaven area of northern Norfolk.
Led by NRT, the project has seen the beavers reintroduced into a private 5.6-hectare enclosure, where they and the habitat are closely monitored.
At Wymondham, fish migration routes have been restored on the River Tiffey – when a redundant overflow from a brush factory in 2018 was removed to put the fish through.
Meanders, meanwhile, have been installed using wood waste along the Stiffkey River at Little Snoring, where a stretch of waterway had become dark and canalized.
And another project has seen Himalayan balm, a non-native invasive plant, removed from the drainage area to the river Wensum.