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Food chemicals 'may harm humans'

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Robin by Tommy Holden
Chemicals in Food report by Nicola Stanbridge

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Low levels of man-made chemicals in basic foods could combine to harm humans, a conservation charity has warned.


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Food Standards Agency


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Man made chemicals which make their way into our food from the environment or packaging are traditionally analysed for harmful effects on a chemical by chemical basis. In a new study by The World Wildlife Fund UK low level doses of old and new chemicals were found in a shopping list of basic foods like brown bread, butter and milk. They include banned pesticides like DDT, flame retardants, Pthalates which are plasticizers and artificial scents. Elizabeth Salter Green, head of the toxics programme at WWF UK argues that added up they are potentially harmful to humans, " When you consider that the foetus as it develops is sensitive to parts per billion in neurological development levels are of concern and it's of even more concern because you are exposed to a chemical cocktail."

These chemicals including the pesticide DDT have shown up in blood tests previously carried out by WWF. Experiments carried out in animals and human cells suggest some chemicals may be a factor in hormonal changes, cancers and immune deficiencies Dr Andreas Kortenkamp, an Independent toxics expert at the london School of Pharmacy, University of London has just completed research mixing low levels of Estrogenic chemicals and found that the hormonal strength of the mixture was significant.

Professor Sir Colin Berry is a pathologist and toxicologist and former chairman of the Advisory Committee on Pesticides which advises the government. He's one of many scientists uncertain about the combination effect of chemicals in our diets, " I don't think that there is no additive effect. What we can say is it certainly isn't simple & there may be some antagonistic effects. Some people absorb them, some people don't so there's one big difference." Like many scientists he argues the benefits of some of the chemicals outweigh the risks, "Perflourinated chemicals that are used in non stick materials for example, could I remind you that if food burns and sticks to anything you get a great many carcinogens produced in it.  The artificial musks are about what I might call consumerism, do you want your house to smell a particular way or for your clothes to have a particular odour when they finished being washed and I think there is probably little justification in that sort of area to keep these compounds if they persist."

The Food Standards Agency and the Chemical Industries Association say individually the levels of chemicals are not harmful but they are now looking at how they add up in our diet. Steve Elliott is the chief executive of the chemicals industry association, " I don't think there's a reason for the general public to be overly concerned by the results produced by this report. I think there is a significant amount of work that needs to be done to look at the additive effect in terms of how one substance might react with another & the ultimate product of that reaction. We've had an existing regime which for one reason or another in terms of testing hasn't given ultimate confidence to either industry or people."

European legislation in 1981 required all new chemicals to be tested. But Industry uses thousands of chemicals in products which because they were on the market prior to 1981 have not been tested for their effect on human health and the environment, it's down to public health authorities to test those they think may be hazardous. 

Legislation is being debated in the european parliament later this year about the registration, evaluation and authorisation of chemicals known as REACH will attempt to test many old chemicals and gradually replace or impose greater controls over hazardous chemicals.


The Chemical groups WWF UK looked at :
12 Organochlorine pesticides, inc. DDT, HCB, Lindane, Chlordane.
44 Polychlorinated Biphenyls (PCBs)
33 Brominated flame retardants, inc. 31 PBDEs + HBCD and TBBP-A
8 Perflourinated chemicals, (PFCs) inc. PFOS and PFOA
8 Phthalates, inc. DEHP, DBP, BBP
4 artificial musks, AHTN and HHCB, musk xylene (MX) musk ketone (MK)
Alkylphenols isomers of nonylphenol (NP) and octylphenol (OP)
5 Organotins inc TBT (tributyltin)

In a basic list of UK foods:
Butter, cheese, bacon, sausages, eggs, milk, olive oil, chicken breast, fish fingers, salmon, tuna, honey, brown bread and orange juice.


Research by TNO in the Netherlands for WWF UK

Research by Andreas Kortenkamp


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