Invisible waste: the silent killer for Spanish natural areas

by Deborah Cater
Invisible waste is devastating Spain's natural parks

Medicines, pesticides and chemicals are highly polluting substances found in most Spanish nature reserves. They are called diffuse or invisible waste. However, their effect is devastating for nature. The residues of these compounds remain in nature for years.

This pollution, caused by human activity and especially by poor waste management, affects almost all natural areas in Spain. That includes protected areas, Octavio Infante of the Spanish bird protection SEO/Birdlife reported to the Spanish news agency Efe. The data comes from the study “Science LIBERA. Analysis of diffuse pollution in natural areas”, prepared by SEO/BirdLife in collaboration with the environmental organisation Ecoembes.

For two and a half years, researchers analysed the invisible waste. They considered the pollution caused today, as well as pollution from the past, and which may have been caused by products banned today.

Water

 “The main work consisted of taking water, soil and sediment samples in 140 Important Bird and Biodiversity Areas (IBAs), which cover a large area of Spain, for subsequent analysis in the laboratory,” Infante said. He continues, “In only four of the 140 areas sampled did we not find any form of pollution. This indicates that practically the entire national territory is affected by some form of diffuse pollution.

“The four areas where no pollutants were found are Sierra de Lokiz, Urbasa and Andía in the Gandara River (Navarre), Freser-Setcases in the Ter River (Girona), Turbón-Espes-Sis in the Isábena River (Huesca) and Riaño in the Esla River (León). Significant quantities of certain drugs were measured and we also saw that minimum quantities were exceeded in 32% of these areas.

“We suspect this accumulation of chemicals in the environment or in living beings (bioaccumulation) may pose a risk not only to animals, but also to human health in the case of water pollution. Moreover, in 74% of the water samples we ‘also found high levels of nicotine’, which demonstrates the human presence in nature, especially in those areas where we would observe greater visible pollution,” he added.

Pesticides

Of previously banned pollutants, mainly residues of organochlorine pesticides, known as the insecticide DDT (dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane), were found. The substance has been banned since 1994 but was widely used between the 1950s and 1980s. “It is striking that, despite the ban being in place for so long, the pesticides were found in over 75% of the samples analysed”.

Metals

According to Infante, “quite significant and even worrying amounts” of metals have been found in some places. But “further investigation is needed to see where the metals have been found as they could be from old mines”.

Restoring the environment

Based on the research, the initiators want the Autonomous Regions or the State to engage in restoration of protected natural areas. “Combating pollution deserves exclusive attention and is essential”. The study, which analysed more than 49,000 pieces of data from more than 2,500 samples, involved the Institute of Environmental Diagnosis and Water Studies and the Institute for Research on Hunting Resources. They are both part of the Spanish Scientific Research Council CSIC.

Executive Director of SEO/BirdLife, Asuncion Ruiz, says this problem needs to be fought at all levels. “Now there are funds for the restoration of nature, governments must also make an effort to detoxify it”.

How can you contribute to a better environment?

Ecoembes‘ CEO said “we can now seize the opportunity to reduce the human waste that is so destructive to nature. This requires something from everyone. We must change our own consumption behaviour and apply the concept of the circular economy in its broadest sense”. 

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