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United Nations Special Rapporteur on Toxics and Humans Rights visits Australia

On the 30th of August I presented information at the Tasmania session of the United Nation's Special Rapporteur on Toxics and Humans Rights. The Rapporteur, Marcus A. Orellana has a busy schedule in Australia, visiting most states and speaking with a variety of community groups, individuals and government authorities.

August 30 2023: Presenters at the UN session in Hobart. Professor Marcos Orellana is in the centre of the front row.

There was a very high quality of speakers presenting to the Rapporteur in Hobart. Major focuses included: Pesticides and the regulatory framework, human rights and legal cases in Tasmania and increases in neurodegenerative disorders such as Parkinsons Disease. Other topics included concerns about drinking water quality, particularly in relation to salmon farms in the Derwent River and the link to Motor Neurone Disease from the toxin BMAA associated with Blue Green Algae, compost and waste toxicity in the Plenty River (part of Hobart's drinking water catchment) and heavy metals in the Derwent River and from the legacy of a number of mines in on the west coast.

It was encouraging to hear from such a diverse and interesting selection of speakers. FoE's role was also to help shine a light on where Tasmania "sits" in relation to the rest of Australia in regards to disinfection byproducts in drinking water, PFAS and pesticide issues.

Some of the interesting information presented by FoE included in terms of Tasmania in relation to Australia wide drinking water data, Tasmania recorded:

The highest levels of cadmium and second highest levels of both lead and arsenic recorded in a water supply at Royal George in 2010,

The highest levels of mercury recorded in a drinking water supply at New Norfolk in 2017 and Smithton in 2020,

The second highest levels of aluminium in a drinking water supply at Queenstown in 2014,

The second and third highest levels of Molybdenum in a drinking water supply at Zeehan in 2021.

High levels of lead in the drinking water supplies for both Pioneer and Rosebery were also discussed.

The "underappreciated" issue of disinfection byproducts was also raised, particularly in relation to the small community of Colebrook where high levels of trichloroacetic acid were detected in 2013.

Breaches to the Australian drinking water guidelines 2000-2020 in relation to disinfection byproducts (DBPs). DBPs are highest non-microbiological source of breaches to the Australian Drinking Water Guidelines. Source: Australian Drinking Water Map

THM (Trihalomethane) guideline levels across the world. The Australian guideline is almost three times higher than those set in the United States. THM's like other DBP's are created when chlorine used to disinfect water reacts with Natural Organic Material in the source water. Perhaps 50% of Australian's could be drinking THM's higher than the US guideline. High levels of THM's have been linked to bladder cancer, rectal and colon cancer and reproductive issues.

FoE also explained to the Rapporteur the problems with PFAS contamination across Australia, including the problem of PFAS contamination of biosolids and recycled water. State Government's at the moment are grappling with how to deal with PFAS generated at waste water treatment facilities. It has been argued that the PFAS National Environment Management Program is actually a "race to the bottom" in terms of addressing the issues of PFAS contamination of food growing areas via the use of biosolids.

FoE then presented data on pesticide contamination of water supplies and waterways in Tasmania with pesticides. The most frequently detected pesticide are the herbicides MCPA and 2,4-D, which are also commonly detected on the mainland. The small community of Bothwell appears to have had to most detections of pesticides in their drinking water supply, although the contamination of Trevallyn Dam (part of Launceston's water supply) with Atrazine in 2018 was the most serious pesticide incident in Tasmania for 20 years.

In terms of the ecological impacts of pesticides the most serious incidents in Tasmania included the detection of Atrazine draining from a tree plantation at Australia high levels, 75,000 times higher than the ANZECC 99% Trigger level in the early 1990's. The detection of the insecticide diazinon at 3000 times the ecological guideline in 2008 was also a major issue that was ignored at the time. The herbicide Metsulfuron Methyl was detected at levels well beyond the ecological guideline in the George River (St Helens water supply) in 2007. Tasmania stopped testing for pesticides in 2014 in most waterways across the state, after a very short-sighted decision by the Hodgeman Government.

The issue of toxic contamination of people and the environment, is perhaps outside of climate change, the greatest existential threat to the planet and humanity's survival. The sharp rise of neurodegenerative disorders is a symptom of a sick environment. Parkinson's disease for instance is largely environmental in its causation and is increasing at a rate of 15% per year! The work in this space is never ending, completely under resourced and exhausting. Big credit needs to go to the brave people continuing to raise the profile of toxic incidents across a plethora of often neglected and under appreciated issues.

Anthony Amis.

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