Chemicals are ‘overwhelming’ food chains



Food chains are overwhelmed by the 350,000 chemicals used around the world, a major contamination conference in Adelaide has heard.

More than 500 experts from 28 countries have gathered to discuss the world’s dirtiest problems – from air and water pollution to microplastics and how climate change will affect the contaminants already present in the environment.

The International Cleanup Conference focuses in particular on PFAS – a huge family of thousands of chemicals that do not easily break down and accumulate in plants, animals and humans.

Experts say all Australians already have PFAS in their bodies due to its common use in everyday items – from food packaging and non-stick cookware to cosmetics and carpet.

PFAS is also routinely detected in food in Australia, but authorities say it is not considered a risk to human health at acceptable levels.

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Tony Circelli, the chief executive of South Australia’s Environment Protection Authority, told delegates that PFAS will be around for hundreds of years.

He said PFAS is among the 350,000 chemicals currently in circulation that will affect food supplies in the distant future.

“We don’t know the effects of these chemicals individually, let alone when they are combined with each other … this isn’t going to go away anytime soon,” he said.

“We have nanoparticles, we have microplastics – our food chains are getting overwhelmed by all of this.

‘We get tough chemicals. We have so much at this conference around PFAS – chemicals that will last for hundreds and hundreds of years.”

PFAS is short for per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances and there are thousands of them. Estimates range from 4000 to 8000.

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A recent study found that they are literally everywhere, including in rainwater and snow in the most remote parts of the world.

The Australian government is about to release the third draft of its national plan for managing PFAS. Experts hope it will significantly improve the existing framework of state-based management in favor of a stronger national approach.

The issue of PFAS in biosolids – wastewater treatment plant waste that is reused as fertilizer on Australian farmland – is of particular concern.

Last year, more than 70 percent of the 349,000 tons of dried solids were disposed of in this way.

Professor Stuart Khan of the University of NSW has warned of what is at stake without consistent guidelines for biosolids.

“If we don’t manage our risk and make sure we handle biosolids safely, especially where it’s reused to grow food crops, we could be in trouble in the future,” he said.

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PFAS is known to cause harm in some animals. The jury is still out on human health impacts, but many countries are warning of increased cancer risks and are calling for limiting exposure to chemicals used since the 1940s.

The EU’s environmental agency says PFAS can lead to health problems such as liver damage, thyroid disease, obesity, fertility problems and cancer, while the US says certain PFAS pose risks to human health.

Australia points to “reasonably consistent reports of an association with various health effects”, but notes that they are “generally small and within normal limits for the entire population”.

The conference will run through Thursday.