News Climate change and nature

New family of 'forever chemicals' found in food chain

Chemicals that are harmful to human and wildlife health are entering the food chain via sewage sludge spread on farmland, according to new research from CHEM Trust.

Sewage pipe. Photo credit: Pixabay

Sewage pipe. Photo credit: Pixabay

A new CHEM Trust briefing highlights the threats posed to the environment and human health by a family of over 4,000 highly persistent chemicals: PFAS (Per- and polyfluorinated alkyl substances) which are known as the ‘forever chemicals’.

CHEM Trust is extremely concerned that this group of chemicals could lead to a situation where their adverse effects could last for generations if urgent action, such as a global ban, is not taken.

CHEM Trust have found that people and wildlife are exposed to hundreds of PFAS simultaneously from various environmental routes, including drinking water, and via consumer products (e.g. waterproof coats, non-stick pans, greaseproof food packaging, cosmetics etc.). Some have proven toxicity (e.g. thyroid diseasereduced response to routine vaccination in childrenpossibly carcinogenic), and many haven’t yet been properly studied.

'Forever Chemicals'

The special carbon-fluorine structure of PFAS is hard to break down in the natural environment. This bond means that they are the most persistent synthetic chemicals to date. PFAS are also mobile in the environment; they are already building up in the most remote areas and pose a threat to drinking water quality.

The clean-up of local contamination by PFAS is very challenging and it is impossible to remove contamination from the ocean and wildlife and people around the world. Because of their extreme persistence, contamination is likely to last decades or centuries, even after emissions have ended, exposing future generations and wildlife all over the planet.

Only two PFAS groups are globally regulated under the Stockholm Convention (PFOS in 2009 and PFOA in 2019) and industry keep replacing one regulated PFAS with a non-regulated one. CHEM Trust say that if we continue to regulate them at the current rate – one PFAS every 10 years – it will take over 40,000 years to regulate all of the 4,000 PFAS.

Economic costs

Not acting on highly persistent and harmful chemicals has an economic cost to society. The cost of inaction on PFAS has recently been estimated at €52 – €84 billion annually for health-related costs for all countries of the European Economic Area and at €46 million – €11 billion annually for environment-related costs for the European Nordic countries.

Dr Julie Schneider, CHEM Trust campaigner and author of the new briefing, said:

“What we are witnessing with the PFAS chemicals is another example of the failure of the current regulatory framework to adequately protect people and wildlife from the potential harm caused by some synthetic chemicals.”

“The system should be designed to make the build-up of man-made chemicals in the environment impossible. This is the best way to protect future generations and wildlife from unforeseen adverse effects triggered by the accumulation of synthetic chemicals in the environment.”

CHEM Trust proposes the following actions are taken to address these ‘forever chemicals’:

Government actions

  • The UK and other governments must act faster to phase out all PFAS, in collaboration with the EU and through global agreements.
  • The UK and other governments must ensure that the environment is monitored for a wide range of PFAS chemicals.
  • Governments should work towards new, protective regulation of all highly persistent man-made chemicals.

Industry responsibility

  • Companies should immediately work to phase out PFAS chemicals, replacing them with safer, non-PFAS alternatives.

Individual action

  • When shopping, ask for and choose PFAS-free products, for example fluorine-free waterproof goods and cosmetics.

Published 20 Oct 2019

Climate change and nature: Sustain has taken a keen interest in the rapidly accumulating evidence about the effect of food and farming on climate change and nature, as scientific evidence emerges that our food system is a very significant contributor to greenhouse gas emissions and biodiversity loss.

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