A new Greenpeace study has revealed the widespread presence of hazardous chemicals in wild fish caught along the length of the Yangtze River. Some of these chemicals have been banned or are under restricted use in European Union nations as well as other countries. In China, however, these substances are completely unregulated, and what’s more, their production is growing every year.
Fishermen working on the Yangtze River
Greenpeace took samples of two commonly eaten fish, catfish and carp, from four cities scattered along the Yangtze, ranging from upriver Chongqing to near-coastal Nanjing and analysed them for two key groups of hazardous chemicals. Almost all of the sampled fish contained alkylphenols such as nonylphenol (NP) and octylphenol (OP), which are commonly used in detergents and in the textile and leather manufacturing process. They also contained perfluorinated compounds, including perfluorooctane sulfonate (PFOS), typically used as a water- or grease-repellant coating in food packaging and textiles, as well as in cosmetics and plastic products.
"These chemicals can mimic hormones, such as natural estrogens, or upset the normal functioning of the endocrine system in other ways. Alkylphenols act like 'gender-benders' and can cause altered sexual development in some species, most notably the development of female organs in male fish. Perfluorinated compounds have been associated with altered thyroid function and decreased sperm count in humans," said Yixiu Wu, toxics campaigner for Greenpeace China.
The Yangtze feeds 400 million people and supplies water to 186 cities; it is also home to nearly half of China's chemical enterprises and many other industries. "The contamination of wild river fish is a highly troubling indicator of the polluted state of the Yangtze as a whole. What's even more frightening is that these chemicals take decades to break down and will accumulate in organisms," said Wu.
The manufacturing of alkylphenols and PFOS has fallen sharply around the world, mainly as a result of restrictions enacted in the last decade. In contrast, in China, production of NPEs (NP derivatives) more than doubled from 1995 to 2003 , while PFOS production quadrupled from 2004 to 2006 . "This trend means that wildlife and people will be increasingly exposed to these hazardous chemicals, especially if China does not immediately put a stop to their use and discharge," warned Wu.
She continued, "Greenpeace urges that the Chinese government regulate, reduce, and ultimately eliminate the manufacture and use of hazardous chemicals, including those found in this study, while replacing them with safer alternatives. This is a critical step to protect not only our rivers, but also the millions of people whose lives depend on them."
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Swimming in Poison