Dangerous chemicals used to create nonstick cookware and fire-fighting foams are showing up in our food. Here’s what they are and why health experts are concerned about them.
A recent analysis by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) found chemical contamination of PFAS (Per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances) at multiple levels of the U.S. food supply chain.
However, the agency maintains that their findings don’t represent a likely health concern for consumers.
PFAS are a widely used class of nearly 5,000 synthetic chemicals that have been used in manufacturing since the 1940s. They’re oil-, water-, and heat-resistant, making them profoundly useful and popular in all manner of products.
These are the chemicals that make carpets stain resistant and fast food packaging able to repel grease and water.
They’re also used in fire-fighting foams and what gives nonstick cookware, well, it’s non-stickiness.
And dental floss contains them, too.
They’re also known as “forever chemicals,” because the molecular bonds that form them can take thousands of years to degrade, meaning that they accumulate both in the environment and in our bodies.
So, when images of an FDA presentation came to light last week, they appeared to confirm what many doctors and scientists have thought for some time.
FDA scientists sampled a wide variety of food sources across the country, including some taken directly from geographic areas known to have PFAS contamination.
The milk at a dairy farm in New Mexico was deemed to be a potential human health hazard after being contaminated by PFAS in groundwater.
Leafy green vegetables like lettuce, kale, and cabbage grown downstream from a PFAS production plant in North Carolina and sold at a local farmers were found to contain the chemicals as well, but at low levels.
The FDA did not deem them a human health concern.
Additionally, PFAS were found in 14 out of 91 samples of meat, dairy, and grain samples, including off-the-shelf chocolate cake.
Despite what the findings seem to imply — that PFAS are widespread throughout the U.S. food-supply chain at various levels from production to packaging — the FDA’s consensus is optimistic.
“Our findings did not detect PFAS in the vast majority of the foods tested. In addition, based on the best available current science, the FDA does not have any indication that these substances are a human health concern, in other words a food safety risk in human food, at the levels found in this limited sampling,” the FDA said in
However, those sentiments don’t appear to be shared by other experts in the field of public health.
“It’s certainly not a surprise in the sense that it’s long been known that the general population is exposed to these chemicals. Essentially everyone in the U.S. has these chemicals in their bodies. We’ve known that for a long time,” said Dr. Ken Spaeth, chief of occupational and environmental medicine at Northwell Health in New York.
“My concern is that these particular FDA researchers concluded that these were safe levels, that there were no hazards posed by these levels, and I would take issue with that,” Dr. Spaeth said.
He argues that looking at individual PFAS levels in chocolate cake and cabbages loses sight of the “big picture” of PFAS, which is about cumulative, lifetime exposure.
In other words, it’s about the PFAS levels that are in everything from the water we drink to the furniture in our house rather than just what’s found in that box of chocolate cake on store shelves.
PFAS are recognized as having the potential to cause a host of serious health problems, including cancers, liver and kidney problems, reproductive harm, high blood pressure, and thyroid issues.
The strongest evidence of such adverse health effects comes from an epidemiological study known as the C8 Health Project, which took place from the 1950s until 2002 in areas of known water contamination in West Virginia and Ohio.
What still remains unclear is at what level of lifetime exposure do these health effects manifest.
There are currently no federally-regulated safety levels for PFAS by the FDA or other federal agencies.
In 2016, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) issued a health advisory for certain PFAS, which set a lifetime exposure limit for drinking water at 70 parts per trillion.
However, health advisories are non-binding, non-enforceable limits that are instead meant to inform the public and health officials.
“EPA does not anticipate a person to experience negative health effects if they drink water with levels of PFOA or PFAS (or both combined) at or below 70 ppt (parts per trillion) every day over their entire lifetime. The health advisories are based on estimated exposure from drinking water and household use of drinking water during food preparation (e.g., cooking or to prepare coffee, tea, or soup),” an EPA spokesperson told Healthline in an email.
The spokesperson said that the limit set by the health advisory isn’t appropriate to identify the potential exposure risk of other products, including food sources like fish, meat, and dairy.
Wendy Heiger-Bernays, PhD, a molecular toxicologist in the Department of Environmental Health at the Boston University School of Public Health, told Healthline that the FDA’s findings provide further proof that federal regulations need to be established across one or more agencies.
“I think they need to be established very quickly. The evidence is sufficient to set limits,” she said.
Dr. Heiger-Bernays is keenly aware of the potential danger of PFAS in the environment and our bodies because of her understanding of the special bonds that make them “forever chemicals.”
“When you have these two atoms, carbons and fluorines, and they bind together molecularly, it creates a molecule that cannot be broken down by enzymes in the body, by sunlight, by microorganisms. They just can’t be broken down,” she said. “They are here forever.”
Blood levels of certain PFAS have actually declined over the past two decades.
In 2006, the EPA launched the PFOA Stewardship Program alongside the eight major companies of the PFAS industry including 3M and DuPont, to help phase out certain PFAS from manufacturing.
But without any real regulation at the federal level, there’s little that individuals can do to mitigate their own exposure to PFAS because of how widespread they are throughout commercial and consumer goods.
“It would require multiple agencies since no one arena is probably sufficient to ensure that exposures are adequately reduced. It would take a coordinated effort, which means there has to be political and regulatory focus for this to happen,” Spaeth said. “There doesn’t seem to be a critical mass of political will to get this done.”