Saturday, April 20, 2024

Wool highlights toxic chemical’s impact

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WAG chief executive Andy Caughey says the concern over PFAS extends beyond promoting wool, given the chemical’s effect on the entire food chain and human health.
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Strong Wool Action Group (SWAG) chief executive Andy Caughey is urging companies to drop a toxic compound used in synthetic carpets and furnishings to protect New Zealand’s high-value food products – and human health.

SWAG hosted a webinar on “forever chemicals”, or polyfluoroalkyls (PFAS), to raise awareness on the presence of the compounds that do not break down over time and now exist in the bloodstream of most humans.

Keynote speakers included Rob Bilott, a lawyer who started his career working for Du Pont, only to change sides on finding company PFAS dumps were severely impacting local water supply, stock and human health.

His 30-year campaign against the chemicals was the subject of the 2019 film Dark Waters, starring Mark Ruffalo.

“I soon learnt PFAS was completely man-made, had been invented after World War Two and is a very strong chemical, resistant to breaking down. Because it had been developed prior to the EPA being formed in 1970 in the United States, it was not covered under the regulations; regulators in effect did not even know about it,” Bilott said.

Over time, more has been learnt about PFAS’ cumulative effect on all living organisms, accumulating in bloodstreams and linked to at least two cancers in humans.

Bilott’s work to indict the chemical companies included one of the largest human health studies ever done in the US, covering 60,000 people to prove PFAS was linked to multiple diseases.

It took him until 2012 before authorities finally determined how widespread the chemical’s presence was in multiple water supplies across the US.

Caughey says his interest in the chemicals was sparked when he was engaged pitching his advanced Merino wool protective clothing to firefighters in the US as an alternative to synthetic outer-wear worn by firemen there.

“Their turn out gear had a PFAS coating on it and in a fire situation the internal heat of their uniform forces heat and smoke in, to be absorbed, particularly around the groin and armpits,” Caughey said. 

“A higher incidence of testicular and breast cancer is seen among firemen and there is little move to change the use of the material, due to chemical company representation on the tech committees that determine the gear firemen use.”

The firefighters could also inadvertently receive an extra toxic load of PFAS if they were also fighting fires with foam, another product the chemicals were used in.

He says putting aside any commercial interest he had in selling Merino gear to US firemen, the encounter was a wakeup call.

“I looked further into the applications of these chemicals, their use in synthetic carpets and furnishings,” he said.

“Carpets represent 3.5% of US landfill material and contain this product. Here in NZ, about 150,000t a year of carpets go to landfill, many may contain PFAS if they are synthetic carpets.”

He says many manufacturers who were using PFAS as a component ingredient were unaware of their longer-term effects.

“We now have dolphins off the NZ coast registering PFAS levels equivalent to dolphins off the coast of Japan where the stuff is made,” he said.

Arlene Blum of the Green Science Policy Institute says PFAS was the “best and the worst” of chemicals, with multiple practical applications, but toxic to all life, lasting for all of geologic time, and requiring the power of lightning to break them down.

“They have been known about since the 1960s and have not been phased out until 2015, with replacements that we are finding are similarly toxic,” Blum said.

Michigan reported levels 840 times greater in drinking water than the safe level for the chemical.

The “safe” level is only two parts per trillion.

Bremworth general manager of safety and sustainability Dr Kirstine Hulse says the evidence on PFAS added momentum to the case for all wool carpets.

“The first step is to stop synthetic carpet production, which we have done this year. It’s not easy, but it is the right thing to do. Businesses do not need to wait for regulations to act, we know more now than ever about these chemicals,” Hulse said.

Caughey says removing PFAS was more of a ‘NZ Inc’ story that goes beyond the wool industry.

“It is about protecting our food from PFAS exposure, to produce safe products. This is raising a flag for all NZ primary producers,” he said.

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