They’re in water- and stain-resistant fabrics, firefighting foam, paints, cleaning products…and food. We’re talking about “forever chemicals”, PFAS (per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances) that don’t break down for millennia and pose many kinds of health risks. And because they’re so durable and used in so many things – including some nonstick cookware and food packaging – they stay in humans and animals, the air, plants, drinking water and in the ground for an extremely long time.
Recently, the Environmental Working Group (EWG) publicized leaked FDA information showing that the FDA had found PFAS in a number of foods, including greens, fruit, meats, dairy products and processed foods. Oddly, the highest amount – 17,600 parts per trillion, more than 250 times of that allowed by the federal government – was found in chocolate cake with chocolate icing that was sourced from several different supermarkets; the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF) thinks those high levels may have come from the cakes’ packaging. That in itself highlights a problem, because companies that make food packaging are supposed to notify the FDA when they use these types of chemicals, and the EDF found no
evidence of any notification.
Because these “forever chemicals” last…well, essentially forever, they build up and remain in the body for long periods of time. So just because the FDA may say the PFAS load in ground turkey, for example, is safe for human consumption, they’re only considering a single source and single use. Add to that the PFAS you may be ingesting in other meats, fruits, vegetables, drinking water, milk, and so on, and your intake can easily exceed what the government considers “safe” levels. Although the FDA has halted manufacture in the US of some of the most toxic PFAS chemicals (these are still being produced in other countries, including in China), thousands of other PFAS are still being made here, and there’s no information as to their level of toxicity or the damage they can cause.
While it’s easy to understand how PFAS (there are 5,000 different types) are put into man-made things like food packaging and nonstick cookware, you might wonder how they’re being found in all types of foods from produce and dairy to meats and processed foods. It all comes down to contamination of both soil and water. Some of the highest PFAS levels are found in foods farmed near water sources contaminated with PFAS, including wells or streams, while others are from farms where contaminated sludge has been spread over fields. At least two US farms have been shut down due to contaminated cow’s milk.
So what’s the FDA doing about this threat to human health? Their statement (www.fda.gov), which was only issued after the leak was publicized, is: “…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.” Note the key words there – “limited” sampling.
With the FDA’s statement in mind, let’s take a look at what the CDC’s (Centers for Disease Control) Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry says about human exposure to PFAS. Sadly, the CDC reports that almost all Americans have detectable PFAS levels in their blood. While scientists are still studying the health effects of “mixtures of PFAS”, so far they have found:
- increased cancer risk
- increased cholesterol levels
- interference with natural hormones
- impact to immune system
- children’s learning, growth and behavior affected
- changes in hormone levels as well as liver, thyroid, and pancreatic function in lab animals
PFAS chemicals become concentrated in cows’ milk and human breast milk, so that when a mother breastfeeds her infant, her PFAS levels go down as she transfers those chemicals to her baby. Since PFAS chemicals are not sprayed on foods or fed to farm animals, they can be present in organic foods as well. Knowing from which farm your food is sourced can help you avoid buying from farms located near known or potential contamination areas.