BBC Radio 4’s ‘Buried’ finds toxic chemicals in soil, food and human blood

BBC Radio 4’s ‘Buried’ finds toxic chemicals in soil, food and human blood

Michael Sheen joins new series of the award winning podcast revealing the results of a one-year investigation involving exclusive testing of British soil, supermarket food and even human blood

Buried: The Last Witness is available as a box set on BBC Sounds and broadcast week days on BBC Radio 4 from 24 June.

June 24, 2024 – A BBC investigation has found such high levels of a banned and toxic chemical in shop-bought fish that it breaches official health advice – and in one case is so toxic that it breaks the law.

Buried: The Last Witness investigates the world of ‘forever chemicals’ – compounds used in industry that persist in the environment for decades, some of which are dangerously toxic.

As part of the investigation, the team partnered with the Royal Society of Chemistry and Manchester Metropolitan University to look into the quantities of carcinogenic polychlorinated-biphenyls [PCBs] in shop-bought fish.

The team bought and tested 9 portions of fish and found six of them were so toxic they breached Food Standards Agency advice, designed to protect human health. One even contained illegal levels of PCBs – enough to trigger enforcement action and product withdrawal.

Toxic chemicals are present in nearly all food, but the FSA sets a maximum ‘tolerable daily intake’ for people, to ensure their health is not affected. The majority of the samples tested (6 of 9) contained such a high level of PCBs that one 140g portion alone would put you over your maximum daily tolerable intake. The worst fish, which also breaks UK legislation, contained so much PCBs that one portion would give you more than an entire week’s worth of the toxic chemical.

Dave Megson, a forensic scientist from Manchester Metropolitan University who partnered with the BBC, says: “Chemical pollution is part of our daily lives, but it is often surprisingly low on the public agenda. It’s not that we found the only fish with high levels of PCBs. It’s that it’s happening all the time – but not enough people are talking about it.”

In 2015 a report written for the Food Standards Agency concluded that contaminants in UK fish were so prevalent – and broke regulations often enough – that it would be ‘prudent’ to monitor fish species ‘from the point of view of public health’. [End of page 20, FERA report]

The Buried results are only indicative, but suggest British people may be eating far more of the toxic and banned chemicals than previously thought. The European Food Safety Authority says that even at these low concentrations, across the population, the PCBs will lower sperm quality, disrupt hormones – even affect babies’ teeth.

At their highest concentrations, usually after acute exposure, PCBs have been linked to skin cancers, immune system suppression, neurological problems in children, diabetes, hypertension and heart failure.

Hosts of the podcast Dan Ashby and Lucy Taylor began a one-year investigation into British-made forever chemicals after receiving a witness’s box of unseen evidence and final testimony on tape. The witness, who has since passed away, warned the Government in the 1960s that PCBs would pose a risk to generations of British people, but alleged he had been beaten-up, bribed and put into witness protection. Buried: The Last Witness (out now on BBC Sounds), tells his story for the first time.

Dan Ashby said: “For one year, we have followed the trail of a chemical – from a witness’s account of deformed cows in a field in 1967, to our plate today. It’s taken us to one of the most contaminated towns on earth, and into a laboratory to find out what’s in our blood. Toxic or chemical pollution is often described by scientists as ‘one of the three great environmental crises’ engulfing our planet. We hope this podcast demonstrates it’s a crisis that is perhaps more urgent and more personal than you realise.”

The investigation also uncovered “off-the-scale” levels of the banned chemical in British soil, and worrying levels near homes and streams – even inside a wood where children play.

On a public pathway near a sports centre in Helsby in Cheshire, the Royal Society of Chemistry scientist found the highest level of the banned chemical he’d ever recorded in soil anywhere in the world. He said that the levels were so high that they were literally ‘off the maximum scale of calibration’ for his equipment.

Toxic PCBs have entered the environment in such large quantities that they’re present at some level in nearly all soil and food. But the BBC Radio 4 Buried team found that a sample of mud from Helsby was more than 12,000 times over the UK background level. Despite that, the former landfill leaking the toxic chemical has not been declared ‘contaminated land’.

The team also tested a drain in South Wales, a river near a housing estate in Caerphilly and a wood in Ynysddu, South Wales, where children play, and all returned levels between 4 and 150 times higher than the UK background level of PCBs.

The results are all high enough to be deemed ‘significant’ and to warrant ‘further investigation’, though more data would be needed to make a full assessment of the level of risk they pose to communities.

Two councils have now triggered a review of the sites in question to determine whether regulators should take control, and pursue remediation. One council responded to Buried results by saying they’ve called in a specialist team and now have a dedicated webpage.

The series features the moment that two reporters test their own blood on air, discovering 80 different types of man-made toxic PCB chemicals in their blood.

The results do not reveal any particular risk to the hosts – since both came out below the national average – but rather show how widespread forever chemicals are in the population.

Buried: The Last Witness is available as a box set on BBC Sounds and broadcast week days on BBC Radio 4 from 24 June.

BBC Radio 4

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