A new report released by the Center for Biological Diversity and Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility revealed that some of the most widely used food pesticides in California contain “potentially dangerous” levels of per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) These substances are a class of nearly 15,000 chemicals that are often used to make thousands of consumer products across dozens of industries. They get their nickname of “forever chemicals” because they do not naturally degrade.
The testing for the study was conducted by an independent, certified laboratory, and the results found PFAS in three out of seven agricultural pesticides tested. No PFAS were detected in concentrations above the detection limit in the two residential pesticide products that were tested. These results suggest that at least some of the identified PFAS contamination of agricultural products is coming from other unknown sources.
The study authors submitted the results to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the California Department of Pesticide Regulation and were accompanied by a letter requesting that these products be removed from use until the contamination can be addressed. The letter goes on to state that one result was “100,000 times higher than the allowed limits for drinking water.” Statements such as this are often misleading; drinking water limits are set very low because they are based on daily consumption levels. Given how much water a human consumes, the daily limits set would be far lower than limits allowed in pesticides.
The toxicity of PFAS is not a new revelation. As far back as 1966, FDA rejected a petition from DuPont to use PFAS as a food additive, primarily due to animal studies indicating liver damage. However, the environmental and human health impacts of these chemicals have not been well researched. FDA began monitoring PFAS in food in 2019 and has detected them in some fruits and vegetables, but has not set any limits based on the low amount of data available.
A spokesperson for the International Fresh Produce Association noted that the science on PFAS is still developing, not just how it impacts produce, but also how it impacts items including cosmetics and non-stick cookware. Without more research on the topic, including studies on uptake levels for different commodities, any conclusions or regulatory responses right now are pure speculation.
To date, only a handful of European countries, including The Netherlands, Germany, Denmark, Sweden, and Norway, have taken steps to ban PFAS.
While most people are likely to have either consumed foods containing PFAS or used products made with the substances in the past, there is a need for a much better understanding of the causes of exposure within the food and agriculture industry.