Hazardous chemicals used to make non-stick and water-repellent coatings on a range of products are contaminating UK eels, a species already under serious threat, according to a Greenpeace report on European eels released last week.

The report, "Slipping Away: the presence of perfluorinated chemicals in eels (Anguilla anguilla) from 11 European countries", including the UK, reveals that European eels, once common but now in rapid decline, are widely contaminated with perfluorinated chemicals (PFCs), a source of rising concern due to their toxicity and widespread distribution in the environment. The eels tested in the UK were from the river Thames.

PFCs are used to make stain-repellent coatings in carpets, textiles and paints, non- stick coatings on saucepans and the insides of fast food and microwave popcorn wrappings.

Brand-name products made using PFCs include Gore-Tex outdoor wear, Stainmaster stain-proof carpet treatments and Teflon easy-to-clean cookware. PFCs are also widely used in industrial processes and in certain fire fighting foams.

They have been linked to liver damage and reproductive problems in fish and certain mammals. An independent UK laboratory tested eels from 21 locations in 11 European countries (2). The present study provides a first overview of the broad geographical extent of contamination of eels with four types of PFCs, including the highly bioaccumulative PFOS (most abundant in samples from Germany, Netherlands, UK, Belgium, and Czech Republic).

"Perfluorinated chemicals are just one of many groups of hazardous chemicals building up in our rivers and lakes, but an important one nonetheless" said Dr. David Santillo of the Greenpeace Research Laboratories, one of the report's authors.

"Their widespread presence demonstrates the serious inadequacy of chemical regulation based on so-called 'adequate control' of risks, whereby companies claim that they can contain the spread into the environment of hazardous chemicals used in products and industrial processes." PFCs persist in the environment and can build up in soils and body tissues of animals. Some are known to be toxic to animals, harming reproductive success in freshwater invertebrates and damaging the liver in fish and mammals. They may also increase uptake and toxicity of other toxic chemicals present.

A 2005 Greenpeace study found PFCs in umbilical cord blood from newborn babies, confirming ability to cross the placenta and expose the developing child in the womb. Eels are an important bioindicator species for pollution in their surroundings due to their long lifespan, often spent in the same local waters, and high proportion of body fat .

The new report is the second phase of an investigation into toxic chemical contamination of European eels, the first phase of which found high body burdens of PCBs and certain brominated flame retardants [Swimming in Chemicals: Eels, PCBs and Brominated Flame Retardants]. Numbers of young eels returning to some European waters are now thought to be as low as 1% of historic levels. Increasingly, chemical pollution is considered an important factor in the decline of this intriguing species believed to migrate thousands of miles from the North Atlantic to Europe.

Greenpeace is calling for tougher rules on chemicals used in everyday products. This autumn, European governments and members of the EU Parliament will vote on a proposed new EU legislation (REACH - Registration, Evaluation, Authorisation of Chemicals). "Just as poor chemical regulation adds further to the threats facing the European eel, so it subjects us all to hazardous chemical exposure," said, Martin Hojsik Greenpeace International Toxics Campaigner.

"The European Union needs to act to protect our health and the environment by requiring companies to replace hazardous chemicals like PFCs with safer alternatives."


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