Last week, 37 suppliers of food additives were hit with a US$40,800 class-action court judgement for providing toxic plasticiser-tainted additives to food manufacturers.
The judgement was a fraction of the $82 million demanded by the Consumers’ Foundation, which filed the lawsuit on behalf of 568 victims. Citing information publicised by the Ministry of Health’s Health Promotion Administration explaining that plasticisers pose no health risks because the human body can expel them over a short period, the court said it did not find evidence of consumers’ physical or emotional suffering as a result of the plasticiser-tainted products.
In arguing that a Health Promotion Administration handbook cited by the court made an unscientific claim that human bodies can expel plasticising agents within 48 hours, regardless of body weight or dosage of plasticisers ingested, representatives of the victims questioned whether the court’s decision to rely on information released by the Ministry of Health was a move intended to placate the public.
The judgement against firms responsible for one of the biggest food safety scandals in Taiwan’s history was widely criticised as too lenient. Kenneth Wu, head of the National Health Research Institute (NHRI), said exposure to such chemicals could lead to increased cancer risks and kidney damage.
Taiwan had the highest rate of haemodialysis in the world and it is highly possible that plasticisers can cause kidney damage, Wu pointed out.
The latest research by the NHRI showed that the metabolic concentration of plasticisers in urine samples collected from 60 children under the age of 10 decreased significantly six months after they stopped consuming plasticiser-tainted products, including certain types of drinks. The research also found that among the subjects of the study, the blood concentration of a hormone key to children’s growth, the thyroid-stimulating hormone (TSH), remained chronically low even after the subjects’ exposure to plasticisers diminished. Low levels of TSH can have a negative effect on metabolic rates and the brain development of children under 2. Low levels of TSH over the long term can damage intelligence and affect physical development.
The subjects’ TSH levels were not pathologically low and would have passed undetected if the plasticiser scandal had not brought attention to the issue, Wu pointed out, adding that it is impossible to know how many children have been affected by plasticiser-tainted foods on the market for years, if not decades.
Ascertaining the true extent of the damages incurred by plasticiser-tainted products is one of the biggest challenges for the court, as the nation is far from learning the full effects of plasticisers. However, such a difficulty points precisely to the extensive and profound effects of plasticiser-tainted foods.
The court should tackle this challenge with the utmost courage and diligence. The lawsuit does not only affect the fates of 568 victims – it will set an important precedent for future food-safety lawsuits at a time when food safety scandals are breaking out one after another. Harsh punishments should be meted out to businesses that have the indecency to put the health of the population at risk just to make a buck. This will be the best deterrent against continuing malpractice.