World needs UN body for chemical pandemic

·3-min read

The human race is in the grip of a "chemical pandemic" on par with the existential threat of climate change, an international conference on contamination has been told.

More than 500 scientists from 28 countries have gathered in Adelaide to hear shocking statistics about the scale of chemical use worldwide and how it's affecting human and environmental health.

Delegates heard 350,000 chemicals are currently used worldwide with 2000 new ones added each year. They have polluted every ecosystem on the planet, and are routinely found in the bodies of humans and animals.

"These enter our bodies with every breath we draw, each meal and drink, the clothes we wear, the products we adorn ourselves with, our homes, our workplaces ...," said veteran science writer Julian Cribb, who's long documented the chemical "tsunami".

"The UN Environment Programme cautions few of these chemicals have ever been properly tested for health and environmental safety."

He said the output of industrial chemicals had doubled since 2000, to around 2.5 billion tonnes a year, and is forecast to triple by 2050.

"It is five times the scale of our climate emissions. For it's sheer size and global ramifications, it is the most under-rated, under investigated, and poorly understood of the 10 catastrophic threats that now face humanity."

Mr Cribb says the human race needs the chemical equivalent of the UN's Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change if it is to stand a fighting chance.

"It is clear that governments do not have the capacity or the will to regulate a global toxic flood.

"The only people who can discipline them (chemical polluters) are the consumers by refusing to buy their products."

He said surveys by the US Centres for Disease Control had found flame retardants, BPA from plastic bottles and traces of non-stick cookware coatings in Americans of all ages, including newborns.

Earlier, delegates heard the world has an estimated 10 million contaminated sites, including 200,000 in Australia.

That's before the world has fully come to terms with PFAS - a family of thousands of chemicals that don't readily break down.

"We really don't know the impacts of these chemicals individually, let alone when they combine with each other," said Tony Circelli, chief executive of South Australia's Environment Protection Authority.

"We've got nanoparticles, we've got microplastics - our food chains are getting overwhelmed by all this. We're getting persistent chemicals. We've got so much at this conference around PFAS - chemicals that are going to be around for hundreds and hundreds of years."

PFAS is shorthand for per- and poly-fluoroalkyl substances. They've been detected in air, water, food and animals, including in Australia after decades of use in everyday items from food packaging to cosmetics and carpet.

They have been associated with serious human health risks including some types of cancer, liver and thyroid issues, fertility problems, early onset puberty and low birth weights, among other things.

The Australian government is about to release the third draft of its national plan to manage PFAS.