[ASC-media] Media release: Scientists warn against ‘clean-and-green’ complacency

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Thu Oct 15 00:19:20 CEST 2009

:: CRC for Contamination Assessment and Remediation of the Environment
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Scientists warn against ‘clean-and-green’ complacency

Friday Oct 16, 2009

Australians need to avoid complacency about the ‘clean and green’ image widely used to market our food produce at home and overseas, according to a leading Australian contaminant scientist.

Marking international World Food Day on Oct 16, Managing Director of the Cooperative Research Centre for Contamination Assessment and Remediation of the Environment (CRC CARE), Professor Ravi Naidu, said that despite excellent food regulation and safeguards in Australia, we and other citizens of industrialised countries face an unprecedented cocktail of toxic substances in our daily lives. 

‘Today the human body has to deal with a complex array of chemicals arriving via our indoor and outdoor air, in our water supplies, and as residual chemicals in our food supply’, Professor Naidu said. 

‘At no time in its evolution has the human body had such an onslaught of unfamiliar and toxic substances to deal with’.

We are also inventing new substances every week that can enter our tissues and organs long before medical science can fully understand what their future effect may be, he said. 

‘For example, we simply don’t know enough about the rapidly increasing range of nanoparticles being used in the manufacturing sector, or how they will behave in our bodies or affect our health’, Professor Naidu said.  Nanoparticles are present naturally in the environment, but we are also inventing lots of new ones. 
Australian food producers have an enviable global reputation for being clean and green, which helps us compete in international markets, Professor Naidu said.

However, we are also heavy users of chemicals and fertilisers - not to mention big consumers of fossil fuel per kilogram of food produced. 

‘We must avoid complacency about the ‘clean and green’ reputation of our foodstuffs’, Professor Naidu said. ‘We may not be quite so clean nor quite so green as we like to think’, he said.

‘As well as the new types of chemicals and materials, we need to keep educating industries and consumers about the risks that existing common contaminants represent to our soils and water and therefore our food.’

The huge release of lead dust in Esperance in 2007, the long-term fallout onto crops and grazing lands from smelters, the dust from exposed mining operations blown long distances, and the leaching from generations of poorly managed arsenic cattle and sheep dips, landfills, petroleum tanks and other pollution sources are all common examples of existing contamination, he said. 

‘We know about these, and we can even get a bit blasé about them’, Professor Naidu said.

‘We need to remember that in the long term it is more likely that science will discover precisely how these materials creep into our food supplies and injure us than come up with easy and cheap solutions to restore our damaged health’, he warned.

We need to remain vigilant about the quality of the soils and water that produce our food and what we add to them, whether on purpose or by accident, he said. 

In addition to home-grown problems, Australian consumers also face real risks from imported foodstuffs that are poorly regulated in the country of origin. The presence of mercury in some imported fish products is an example. Some Asian vegetable imports may also be grown under conditions that would not be acceptable in Australia.

Professor Naidu said that our growing cities are encroaching on what was once our most productive market garden land, while freshwater supplies were shrinking and energy costs escalating. Yet at the same time we were deliberately increasing the Australian population at the fastest rate in the developed world.

‘This is going to lead us into increasingly intense forms of food production which carry with them extra risks of contamination from chemicals and fertilisers’, he said.
An example is the risk of endocrine disruptor chemicals entering our food chain when we irrigate with recycled wastewater. 

‘Whether we are talking about unknowingly growing our vegies in backyards that used to be industrial land, or in soil polluted by old waste from careless businesses, or about large areas of dry or irrigated farmland, we cannot afford to relax measures that prevent food contamination.’

Professor Naidu said that rapid new sensors of toxic metals being developed by his CRC could make a real contribution to future food safety.

‘World Food Day ought to be a reminder to us all that our own health, as well as our ability to earn revenue from food exports to a hungry world, depends on the care we take to avoid contamination’, he said.

More information:
Professor Ravi Naidu, CRC CARE, 08 8302 5041 or 0407 720 257
Peter Martin, CRC CARE communication, ph 08 8302 3933 or 0429 779 228
peter.martin at crccare.com

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