Chemical pollution, a key driver of the biodiversity crisis

January 23, 2020 By Julie Schneider of CHEM Trust:

Chemical pollution, a key driver of the biodiversity crisis

In December 2019, the European Commission launched a “European Green Deal” as a response to climate and environmental-related challenges defining our generation. The European Commission has started consulting on the roadmap of some of the strategies listed in the green deal, including the EU 2030 Biodiversity Strategy.

This week CHEM Trust submitted comments to the European Commission to emphasize the urgent need to deal with one of the drivers of the biodiversity crisis: pollution, and more specifically, chemical pollution.

Biodiversity losses due to chemical pollution

Chemical pollution does not only involve pollution from direct sources such as industrial accidents or large-scale pollution from the widespread use of synthetic pesticides, but also diffuse pollution from synthetic chemicals leaching from consumer products such as flame retardantsplasticizerswater and grease repellents and pharmaceuticals. CHEM Trust has published many reports over the years highlighting the impacts of chemicals on biodiversity.

Recent scientific findings provide very concerning evidence of chemical pollution as a driver of ecosystem losses, as much for terrestrial ecosystems as for aquatic ecosystems. To mention just a few:

  • on land: bird populations in Europe are highly impacted by the extensive use of synthetic pesticides;
  • in freshwater: in the EU, on average 20 % of aquatic species are disappearing due to exposure to chemical mixtures;
  • in marine waters: legacy pollution from banned PCBs is threatening the survival of orca populations.

Healthy ecosystems provide many services to society, such as carbon storage, water regulation or pollinator services. A conservative estimate suggests that in terms of economic value at least 27% of total ecosystem service losses are due to chemical pollution.

Moreover, chronic exposure to chemical pollution, such as from endocrine disrupters, is impacting wildlife’s welfare and resilience by weakening their reproduction, immune, hormonal and neurological systems as well as their mating, migration and feeding behaviours. This makes wildlife populations and entire ecosystems more vulnerable and less resilient in a context where they are also affected by many other external stressors such as climate change or habitat loss.

The burden of synthetic chemicals in the air, water and soil has reached critical levels. To cite one example, 42% of European freshwater sites have levels of organic pollutants likely to lead to long-term effects on sensitive freshwater species.

State of the European environment

In December last year, the European Environment Agency released its landmark report on the state of the European environment. Regarding chemical pollution, the report concluded that “Europe is not on track to minimise the significant adverse effects of chemicals on the environment by 2020”. It noted that 62 % of Europe’s water bodies are not in good chemical status, and that the objectives on contaminants in the Marine Strategy Framework Directive will not be achieved.

Tragically, the situation is set to get worse as the current outlook for 2030 is that “The projected increase in chemical production and continued emissions of persistent and hazardous chemicals suggests that the total chemical burden on health and the environment is unlikely to decrease”.

Moreover, the report states that the risks from chemical pollution on the environment are “likely [to be] greatly underestimated” as:

  • Only a fraction of chemicals are monitored and assessed. Pointing out that over 2,500 persistent and mobile chemicals are not currently monitored.
  • Mixture effects and multiple stressors are not included in risk assessments.

Chemical Strategy for sustainability

Stricter risk management measures to better control and reduce the overall use of chemicals of very high concern is crucial to reduce the impact of chemical pollution on ecosystems.

In CHEM Trust’s view the success of the Biodiversity Strategy is therefore bound to the ambition and delivery of several other strategies developed in the context of the European Green Deal, especially the zero-pollution ambition for a non-toxic environment including the Chemical Strategy for sustainability.

Dr Julie Schneider, CHEM Trust campaigner said:

“The biodiversity crisis has many drivers and one of them is chemical pollution. But issues should not be addressed in silos. An integrated approach between all the strategies listed in the European Green Deal will be critical to restore the natural environment on a path to recovery.”