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Environmental Philanthropy: Stories to Inspire

Exposing the effects of toxic chemical pollution on otter reproduction

The NGOs that work on the really underfunded environmental issues – the so-called ‘Cinderella’ issues like that of toxic chemicals – are tiny. They have to work really hard to keep their heads above water and make their voices heard. But that’s not because these issues aren’t important: they’re absolutely critical, not only for the environment but also for human health. For organisations like CHEM Trust, we tend to support them at a higher ratio relative to their turnover than we would other organisations, but we think that’s a significant role that we have to play. It is important to us to respond to the needs of an organisation so that it doesn’t constantly have to chase money, and we definitely feel that we get bang for our buck. The commitment and the outputs are fantastic among these groups and we enjoy working with them to make them as effective as they can be. 

We don’t fund research unless it has a practical impact, or plays a vital role in campaigning for change. CHEM Trust told us about a team at Cardiff University that tests for toxins, such as hormone-disrupting chemicals, in dead otters. They recognised the potential of this research and channelled some of their funding from us to the Cardiff team.

The outcome of this research was an astonishing report. Otter population recovery in the UK is a great news story: they’re now in every county in England, having largely disappeared by the 1970s. But the report demonstrated that otter breeding prospects are not looking too hopeful because of the state of male otters’ reproductive health in the UK. Otters are apex predators in the freshwater system and they absorb toxic chemicals such as hormone disruptors through the fish they eat and the water they live in – the levels of these chemicals become higher as you go up the food chain. The research showed that male otter penises are smaller in polluted areas than in unpolluted areas. A contributory factor could be more stringent fire safety requirements here in the UK, meaning we use more fire-retardant chemicals than the rest of the EU. We are surrounded by materials treated with these chemicals, whether in the car or using a computer, and they reach high levels of concentration in our waterways as a result. If this issue is affecting otters, it’s hard to imagine it’s not affecting humans. 

CHEM Trust and their partners circulated the report to chemicals policy-makers in the EU, US and Japan, and the media picked up on the story, helping to draw much-needed attention to the issue of hormone-disrupting chemicals in humans and wildlife. The compelling evidence from the Cardiff University team would not have come to light if CHEM Trust had not been able to suggest and highlight this element of their research.