PFAS chemicals found in food illustrate scale of toxic problem


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The PFAS problem just got a little scarier.

According to a leaked sampling results presented at an international conference in May, Food and Drug Administration researchers detected toxic, man-made PFAS chemicals in produce, meat, dairy, grain and seafood products across the U.S.

"This really is another blow to those who live in contaminated areas who are already experiencing negative economic impacts and fears of elevated health risks from PFAS contamination," says Jamie C. DeWitt, a pharmacology and toxicology professor at North Carolina State University.

A few days after the results were leaked, The Food and Drug Administration acknowledged it's investigating public exposure to the toxic, man-made chemicals through the food supply.

"The widespread use of PFAS and their ability to remain intact in the environment means that over time PFAS levels from past and current uses can result in increasing levels of contamination of ground water and soil," reads a recently added page on the FDA's website. "...PFAS can occur in food primarily through environmental contamination, including contaminated water and soil used to grow the food."

Advocates note that PFAS-contaminated sewage sludge, which contains waste from residential and industrial sources, could spread PFAS to soil when used as fertilizer. Currently, there are no federal regulations requiring testing of sludge for PFAS.

There are more than 5,000 chemicals in the PFAS group. Their use in household cooking products, food packaging, paints, fabrics and firefighting foam was once more widespread, but studies linking two of the chemicals, PFOA and PFOS, to serious health conditions has led to some efforts by government agencies to limit them.

Colorado recently banned the use of firefighting foam containing PFAS (except when required by the military).

And several years ago, the FDA got manufacturers of certain “long-chain” PFAS chemicals, thought to be more harmful to health and the environment, to agree to stop using them in items such as nonstick pans and packaging.

However, little is known about the health and environmental effects of newer, "short-chain" chemicals still in use by manufacturers. Some environmental advocates dispute that they are much safer.

Leaked results obtained by the Environmental Defense Fund, an advocacy organization, show that FDA researchers found PFOS — one of the more widely studied, long-chain PFAS chemicals — in approximately half of the meat and seafood products they tested from across the U.S. But the FDA determined the levels of PFOS in those products probably weren't a health concern.

However, chocolate cake with chocolate icing contained high levels of a little-studied short-chain chemical, PFPeA. That chemical was never approved by the FDA for use in products that contact food, says Tom Neltner, chemicals policy director for the Environmental Defense Fund. Neltner hypothesized that the contamination came through greaseproof paper.

"That may happen because of a loophole in the law that says the company can determine something is safe without ever telling FDA," Neltner says.

The researchers also found PFBA (a short-chain chemical once used to make photographic film) in pineapple samples, and PFHxS in sweet potatoes.

PFHxS, like PFOS, is a long-chain chemical previously used by the military in firefighting foam. Notably, residents who lived near the Peterson Air Force Base while the foam was in use recently tested for blood levels of this chemical 10 times higher than that of the general population.

The leaked results describe how PFAS in firefighting foam contaminated milk samples at a dairy farm in New Mexico near an Air Force base. Those products were determined to be unfit for consumption and discarded.

Finally, according to the leaked presentation, the researchers detected the PFAS chemical GenX and numerous other PFAS in samples of leafy greens grown within 10 miles of a PFAS production facility in the eastern United States — though they determined those levels probably did not constitute a health concern.

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