'The greatest chemical threat facing humankind'

Researcher Dr Patrick Byrne has described the greatest chemical threat facing humankind in the 21st century in a shocking new film.

PFAS, known as forever chemicals, have been building up in the natural environment and our own bodies for decades. They are linked to cancers, hormone-related diseases, obesity and fertility issues in humans, and similar health issues in wildlife. 

Dr Byrne of Liverpool John Moores University joined ENDS Report and Watershed Investigations to uncover the toxic truth about PFAS water pollution for a new documentary. Patrick, a hydrologist and pollution expert, teamed up with a biologist, a paddle-boarder, a shellfish producer and environmental campaigner Feargal Sharkey for the film which attracted interest from ITV and Sky News.

Dr Byrne, who has conducted extensive research into chemical pollution around the Mersey Basin, said: “PFAS are probably the greatest chemical threat facing humankind in the 21st Century.”

Indeed, Patrick’s research has uncovered that the Mersey carries one of the highest concentrations of toxic PFAS of all major river estuaries globally.  

Invented in the US in the 1940s, PFAS are man-made compounds used in hundreds of everyday products, from Teflon and plastic bottles, to shampoo and pizza boxes. Virtually indestructible due to their strong carbon bonds, some are toxic and known to have been building up in the environment and in our bodies for decades.

Dr Byrne says the level of risk they pose is extremely serious: “Several decades of medical research has linked exposure to high concentrations of different compounds to various cancers, to fertile issues to obesity, to birth defects, hormonal imbalances and even early onset of puberty. We also know they are accumulating in plants and animals, and in the human food chain, in cattle, crops and drinking water.”

In the film, we see Dr Byrne measuring PFAS pollution from a wastewater treatment plant near Bury, while filmmakers also test shellfish in Cornwall and water quality for paddleboarders in Lancashire.

He has found that around 50% of PFAs coming through the Mersey come from wastewater treatment effluents.

“Any kind of effluent coming from treatment plants will have PFAS in it, it’s not just sewage which is in the news a lot, it’s also water that is supposed to be clean after being treated,” he says.

“Yes, effluent undergoes dilution when it enters water bodies, like rivers and that’s seen as a good thing because it becomes less toxic but that’s really masking the sheer volume of PFAS that are being transported through rivers."

In short, and in terms of two of the most toxic compounds – PFOS and PFOA - the Mersey is in the top three for quantities of chemical transported to the sea, with only Tokyo Bay and Cape Fear, Carolina, being worse.

ENDS Report, which produced the documentary called TOXIC: Britain’s forever polluted rivers and seas, says it has put all its evidence from the film to the UK Government and the Environment Agency but some MPS say the UK is way behind the curve.

Green MP Natalie Bennett said: “What’s happening on the River Wyre is a real demonstration of how inadequate our regulation is and this is actually getting worse since we left the EU.”

- Professor Serge Wich, also from the School of Biological and Environmental Sciences, played a minor role in the documentary with drone footage.


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