17 March 2022

New research by the University of East London (UEL) shows the harmful impact that the UK's New Year's Eve fireworks display has on the River Thames and surrounding waterways.

The research led by Ria Devereux, a PhD student from UEL's Sustainability Research Institute (SRI), examined the pollution caused by plastics found in fireworks and the damaging effect on the ecology and aquaculture of the Thames and neighbouring waterways.

The report found that microplastics abundance was significantly higher six hours after the 2000 New Year fireworks in Westminster (London), with black microplastic fibres the most observed type of plastic. These black microplastics have been linked to delaying growth, causing oxidative damage and abnormal behaviour in marine life.

Polychloroprene and polyvinyl chloride (PVC) were the most observed polymers, with high concentrations and exposure to PVC linked to severe health problems in humans such as cancer, immune system damage and hormone disruption.

Ria Devereux said, "Previous studies on plastic pollution in water have focused on marine environments like oceans. However, we cannot ignore the impacts human behaviour has on freshwater systems and what this means for the health of people and animals.

Rivers are a major pathway for plastic pollution with an estimated at 1.15 to 2.41 million tonnes per annum worldwide, with 80 per cent of plastic originating from the terrestrial environment."

A three-litre water sample was collected from the River Thames over nine consecutive days at Westminster, London. A total of 2760 pieces of microplastics (99 per cent fibres) were found using light microscopy. Microplastics can leach and absorb harmful toxins from the surrounding environment, which can then transfer pollutants into organisms and result in bioaccumulation and biomagnification within food chains.

In addition, metals, cardboard, and toxic substances and airborne chemical pollutants were found around firework display sites. These materials often find a way into rivers due to rain, surface run-off and subsurface drainage, especially as many of the world's largest New Year firework displays take place in cities located over water. This includes the UK (London, Westminster), Australia (Sydney Harbour), Brazil (Rio de Janeiro, Copacabana), Hong Kong (Victoria Harbour) and Singapore (Marina Bay).

Ria Devereux added, "One of the positives of Covid-19 and the cancellation of fireworks displays around the world was the move to light shows and drone displays. This is something that I hope is continued at future New Year's Eve events as a more sustainable, but no less entertaining, alternative to traditional fireworks displays."

Director of Studies, Professor Darryl Newport, said, "This is a very important piece of supplemental research that was highlighted during our three-year microplastic study of the tidal Thames and Estuary. It further highlights our need to eradicate the use of unnecessary single use plastics within our society as a whole."

The research, 'Microplastic abundance in the Thames River during the New Year period' has been published in Elsevier - read the full report.

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