IPEN International Pollutants Elimination Network

Toxic Chemicals from Plastic Waste Contaminate Kenya’s Food Chain and Products

plastic trash piled by a roadside

Nairobi/Geneva – Ahead of tomorrow’s “PCB Fair” at the Basel, Rotterdam, and Stockholm Conventions (BRS COPs), a study today from the Kenyan public interest group Centre for Environment Justice and Development (CEJAD), IPEN, and Arnika shows that extremely high levels of persistent organic pollutants (POPs), including dioxin-like PCBs, likely produced from burning and disposal of plastic and electronic wastes, are contaminating the food supply in Kenya. Alarmingly, today’s study found the highest level of contamination by dioxin-like PCBs ever measured in free-range chicken eggs globally. Testing found levels of these POPs chemicals in eggs that are as much as 111 times higher than EU regulatory limits for dioxins plus dioxin-like PCBs and showed that an adult eating a single egg from one Kenyan location could be exposed to a dose of toxic chemicals that would exceed the EU daily safety limit for more than 250 days.

For the study, “Hazardous Chemicals in Plastic Products and Food Chain in Kenya,” the researchers also purchased eighteen products made from recycled plastics in Kenya, including toys, and analyzed them for contamination by brominated flame retardants (BFRs), including highly toxic and banned POPs. The study found that 14 of the 18 products contained high levels of BFRs, exceeding the definition of hazardous POPs waste suggested by the African region. One sample, a toy car, was tested for brominated dioxins and contained the toxic chemicals at higher concentrations than levels found in ash from waste incineration. 

“There is nothing “fair” about contamination from PCBs. Africa faces an unequal share of the burdens from plastic pollution, from PCBs, and from other highly toxic chemicals from plastics that contaminate our food, water, air, and even toys that our children play with,” said Griffins Ochieng, Executive Director of CEJAD. “We experience greater health risks because of loopholes in international regulations and abuses by corporations and countries that export plastic wastes which contain and release dangerous chemicals. Our study today shows that we urgently need stronger global policies to end the crisis from poisonous plastics.”

The study today assessed environmental contamination from plastic wastes by testing free-range chicken eggs from four pollution hot spots in Kenya: two sites in Nanyuki and Dandora near major waste disposal sites where plastics are burned, one site at the Ngara market where e-waste is dismantled, and one site in Mirema near a community cooker that burned plastic waste as fuel. Eggs are used as chickens eating from their surroundings can ingest POPs in the food chain and pass them on in their eggs.  Among the findings from the egg testing are:

  • The levels of dioxin-like PCBs in two pooled samples from the Ngara market were the highest ever measured in free chicken eggs globally, exceeding EU safety limits by more than 30 and 55 times, and the sum of PCBs and chlorinated dioxins was 100 and 111 times above EU safety levels. An adult eating a single egg from this location would be exposed to a dose of toxic chemicals that would exceed the EU daily safety limit for nearly 200 to more than 250 days.
  • The levels of chlorinated dioxins (PCDD/Fs) were 2-8 times higher than EU safety limits, with the highest levels in eggs from the Dandora dumpsite. Chemicals known to be produced from burning plastic waste were also found in high levels in eggs from this site.
  • Eggs from the Mirema “community cooker” vicinity had a very high level of hexabromocyclododecane (HBCD), a toxic flame retardant banned in the EU.

Among the toys and other products, the results showed: 

  • Fourteen of the 18 products contained levels of BFRs above the proposed limit for hazardous POPs waste by the African group.
  • Six novel BFRs were found in the products, with tetrabromobisphenol A (TBBPA), the most widely used BFR, found in 16 out of the 18 samples.
  • A plastic toy car contained extremely high levels of brominated dioxins — higher than concentrations found in waste incineration ashes.

POPs identified in today’s study are regulated globally by the Basel and Stockholm Conventions which set so-called “low POPs content levels” (LPCLs) that restrict the levels of POPs chemicals allowed in plastic and other wastes. But the study shows that these “low” levels are far too high to protect children and consumers around the world from toxic exposures when they use products made from recycled plastic wastes. The African region has proposed strengthening global rules on LPCLs.

“Stronger low POPs content levels are the only way to avoid toxic exposures from plastic and other wastes,” said Jindrich Petrlik, lead author of today’s report and an IPEN expert on dioxins and waste and Program Director of Arnika’s Toxics and Waste Programme.  “We also must ensure that countries take responsibility for their own waste and stop exporting plastic wastes. Further, burning of POPs-contaminated waste should be replaced with non-combustion technologies.” 

In addition to establishing lower LPCLs and using non-combustion technologies, the report today recommends:

  • Halting the entry of plastic treated with BFRs for recycling into toys and other consumer goods.
  • Using separation techniques for POPs waste.
  • Restricting BFRs as a class.
  • Regulating and controlling plastic waste, including through a focus in the Plastics Treaty on the chemical content of plastic materials and prohibitions on materials such as PVC or plastics containing brominated compounds. 

The information in today’s report is of a preliminary nature and is part of a draft version of a national report summarizing plastic waste policies; results of analyzes; and new data, developed in the context of the project entitled “Advancing a Non-Toxic Circular Economy: Reducing non-circular plastics and advancing circular plastic production, collection and recycling in Kenya,” implemented in cooperation with the Secretariat of the Basel Convention with funding from the Norwegian Agency for Development Cooperation (Norad) as a contribution to the work programme of the Basel Convention Plastic Waste Partnership. The preliminary information hereby disseminated is under the sole responsibility of CEJAD, Arnika, and IPEN and does not necessarily reflect the views of the Secretariat, UNEP or Kenya. The final version of the national report summarizing plastic waste policies; results of analyzes; and new data, will be produced once the project is concluded.  

The Centre for Environment Justice and Development (CEJAD) is a public interest Non-Governmental Organization in Kenya working to promote sound management of chemicals and waste in order to protect the natural environment and wellbeing of the Kenyan people, especially vulnerable populations 

Arnika is a Czech non-profit organization that has been uniting people striving for a better environment since 2001 and working to protect nature and a healthy environment for future generations both in Czechia and abroad.

The International Pollutants Elimination Network (IPEN) is a global network of more than 600 Participating Organizations in over 125 countries, primarily developing and transition countries. IPEN works to establish and implement safe chemicals policies and practices that protect human health and the environment, for a toxics-free future for all.