Toxic chemicals have been found to accumulate in many long-lived marine and semi-aquatic animals, from killer whales to polar bears, but the latest research shows that the once-common eel is also threatened by human pollution.

Perfuorinated chemicals (PFCs), used to make non-stick and water repellent coating on a wide range of products from cookware to coats, have widely contaminated eels tested in 11 European countries, including the UK.

Greenpeace commissioned scientists to test the levels of PFCs in eels from 21 locations and found that those from the Thames and rivers in Germany, the Netherlands, Belgium and the Czech Republic were the most contaminated.

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.

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 levels of PCBs and certain brominated flame retardants (see related story).

Numbers of young eels returning to some European waters are now thought to be as low as 1% of historic levels and chemical pollution is believed to be an important factor in their decline.

Increasingly, chemical pollution is considered an important factor in the decline of this species believed to migrate thousands of miles from the North Atlantic to Europe.

“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.”

The report, Slipping Away: the presence of perfluorinated chemicals in eels (Anguilla anguilla) from 11 European countries, can be found on the Greenpeace website.

Sam Bond

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