There is a lot of concern about PFAS contamination in our food and drinking water. So much so, that the EPA proposed new health advisory limits for PFAS. But what happens if we eat fish that are high in PFAS? Is tilapia one of those fish?
The FDA released the results of a broad food sampling program. They found PFAS in tilapia at concentrations ranging from 0 to 95 parts per trillion. The FDA sampled farmed tilapia from 3 countries. 20% of the tilapia had PFAS contamination.
In this blog post, we will answer the question about PFAS in tilapia and tell you how you can keep your family safe.
Read my comprehensive article about PFAS contamination in our food.
Related articles about PFAS in our food:
Is PFAS in Canned Tuna: What You Need to Know
Does Salmon Have PFAS in it? What Are Your Risks?
Do Fish Sticks Have PFAS in Them? Surprising Results
Do Shrimp Have PFAS In Them? Shocking Answers
Does Cod Fish Have PFAS in it? A Look at the Science
What is PFAS
Per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) are a group of man-made chemicals that include more than 4,000 individual molecules. Some examples of PFAS compounds are PFOA, PFOS, and GenX.
PFAS have been manufactured and used in a variety of industries since the 1940s. They are used in many industries because they are resistant to heat, oil, stains, grease, and water. PFAS compounds are used in nonstick cookware, fast-food wrappers, carpeting, clothing, furniture fabrics, and many other products.
PFOA and PFOS have been detected in the environment and in the blood of the general U.S. population. These chemicals are persistent in the environment and can accumulate in people and animals over time. For this reason, they are known as “forever chemicals.”
How does PFAS get in my food?
There are several ways that PFAS can end up in your food.
- Contaminated soil: Plants that are grown in PFAS-contaminated soil can take up the chemicals. Water in contact with this soil dissolves PFAS which enters the plant through the roots.
- Contaminated rain or groundwater: Plants that are watered with contaminated water take up PFAS into their roots and bulk fibers. This is a significant way that PFAS enter the food supply.
- PFAS in animal feed and water: Animals can be fed contaminated plants or given water that contains PFAS. This is how some meat and poultry products become contaminated.
- PFAS in oceans, lakes, & streams: Fish and shellfish can accumulate PFAS in their bodies if they live in contaminated water. This occurs through ingestion of contaminated water or from eating plankton or smaller fish that have PFAS in their bodies.
- Processing equipment: Food can become contaminated with PFAS during food processing or storage.
- PFAS-containing packaging: Food can become contaminated with PFAS from food packaging, such as fast-food wrappers. Studies have shown that some types of food packaging, such as fast-food wrappers and pizza boxes, can be a significant source of PFAS contamination in food.
Health concerns and PFAS
There is evidence that PFOA and PFOS exposure can lead to adverse human health effects. The most well-established effects are on fetal and child development, cancer, liver damage, thyroid problems, immune system suppression, and hormone disruption.
PFAS exposure has been linked to a number of health problems in humans. The most well-studied effects are:
- Cancer: PFOA and PFOS have been classified as “likely human carcinogens” by the International Agency for Research on Cancer.
- Liver damage: PFOA and PFOS exposure has been linked to liver damage in humans.
- Thyroid problems: PFOA and PFOS exposure has been linked to thyroid problems in humans.
- Immune system suppression: PFAS exposure has been linked to immune system suppression in humans.
- Hormone disruption: PFAS exposure has been linked to hormone disruption in humans.
What levels of PFAS in food are safe?
The EPA has set MCLs (maximum contaminant levels) for PFAS in drinking water, so that we have an idea of how much is safe to consume. Unfortunately, they have not established an equivalent standard for our food.
There are several reasons why the US government has yet to establish a safe threshold for food contaminants like PFAS. For one, health experts cannot agree on the best way to evaluate risks. Not to mention, it is extremely difficult calculating how much toxic chemicals people can consume before they become ill.
Maine CDC standard for PFAS in food
The Maine CDC created a detailed, easy-to-use guide that lets you know how much PFAS from fish is safe for consumption. Their guide is a tool known as chemical-specific fish tissue action levels (FTALs).
FTALs are the maximum concentration of a contaminant you can eat with no risk of toxicity. This guide includes a recommendation for how often you can eat contaminated fish, as PFAS bioaccumulate.
The table below displays the amount of PFAS that is safe to consume in fish, as well as how often you can eat it. These values were established by the Maine CDC.
|PFOS in fish (ng/kg)||Meal advice|
|3,500||1 meal per week|
|7,500||2 meals per month|
|15,000||1 meal per month|
|30,000||6 meals per year|
|60,000||3 meals per year|
|> 60,000||Do Not Eat|
European Food Safety Authority standard for PFAS in food
The European Food Safety Authority (EFSA), which is the European equivalent to our FDA, set a limit for the total exposure of 4 PFAS chemicals in food.
The following 4 compounds are regulated by EFSA:
- perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA)
- perfluorooctane sulfonate (PFOS)
- perfluorononanoic acid (PFNA)
- perfluorohexane sulfonic acid (PFHxS)
The EFSA limit for the combined total of these four PFAS compounds is 4.4 ng/kg of body weight per week.
PFAS in Tilapia
The FDA conducted extensive testing for PFAS in food products. Three of the 167 foods they tested had PFAS in them. Testing results indicated detectable concentrations of PFAS compounds in fish sticks, canned tuna, and protein powder.
The FDA tested farm-raised tilapia in this study from 3 different countries. Each sample was analyzed for 16 different PFAS chemicals. 20% of the 10 samples had detectable levels of PFAS in them. Two different PFAS compound were detected.
FDA food testing methodology
Testing for PFAS in food is extremely difficult. To overcome these challenges, the FDA developed a new test method to quantify PFAS levels in food.
This new procedure uses liquid chromatography–mass spectrometry methods to measure 16 PFAS compounds in food. The accuracy of their new technique was verified for the following food matrices:
- infant formula
- strawberry gelatin
- pancake syrup
- cream cheese
- shredded wheat cereal
The FDA food testing method measures the following PFAS chemicals:
|NaDONA||Sodium dodecafluoro-3H-4, 8-dioxanonanoate|
FDA tilapia testing results
The following table summarizes the tilapia testing results from the 2022 FDA food safety survey. These results are for total PFAS detected in tilapia. Two out of 10 samples contained PFAS.
|Item Description||Total PFAS|
These results are in nanograms per kilogram (ng/kg), which is the same as ppt. If you ate 1 kilogram of the tilapia sample with the highest concentration (95 ppt), you would ingest 10.7 nanograms of PFAS.
A kilogram is 2.2 pounds, which is a lot of tilapia. However, a typical serving of tilapia is 4-ounces, which is 113 grams (0.113 kilograms). If you eat tilapia 9 times, you’ve consumed a kilogram.
How much PFAS is in tilapia?
How much PFAS are you ingesting when you have a 4-ounce serving of tilapia? Based on the highest concentration detected – 95 ng/kg, you’d get approximately 10.7 nanograms as shown below.
- PFAS concentration: 95 ng/kg
- Normal tilapia serving size: 4-ounces (0.113 kg)
- PFAS in serving size of tilapia: 10.7 nanograms
What does eating 10.7 nanograms of PFAS do to your health? It’s difficult to say.
Unfortunately, the US government has not established a food standard for the maximum amount of PFAS in food we can safely consume.
To help make sense of this information, we compared the FDAs sampling result to the food safety standards developed by the Maine CDC and the EFSA.
Maine’s Standard: The Maine CDC developed a user-friendly standard to help you determine if food is safe to eat. Using the highest PFAS concentration from the FDA’s data will give us a worst-case assessment of our risk. The most contaminated sample had a total PFAS concentration of 95 ng/kg – this is less than the lowest FTAL limit of 3,500 ng/kg. Maine’s CDC standard suggests it is safe to eat 1 meal of tilapia per week.
EFSA Standard: We can also compare the highest PFAS tilapia sample to the EFSA limit. EFSA set a maximum of 4.4 ng/kg of body weight per week. For our analysis, we assume an average person weighs approximately 68 kilograms (150 pounds).
Here is the math: 68 kg x 4.4 ng/kg per week = 299.2 ng per week
One 4-ounce serving of tilapia has 10.7 nanograms of PFAS which is about 3.6% of the weekly limit allowed by EFSA. Using the European standard, you could eat tilapia 28 times each week without any health effects.
From my perspective, no amount of PFAS in my food is safe. This is troubling, especially since I really enjoy tilapia.
Which PFAS compounds were found in tilapia?
The FDA found 2 different PFAS compounds in the 10 samples of tilapia they tested. They found the following compounds:
The FDA reported indicated that all of the fish samples were farmed. Every sample had the same description – tilapia fillets. They did not mention the brand or grocery stores where the fish was purchased.
The FDA report noted the country of origin for all of their samples.
- China – 6 samples
- Honduras – 1sample
- NI – 3 samples
Nine of the 10 samples were wrapped in LDPE packaging; 1 was wrapped in expanded polystyrene.
FDA statement on food safety
The FDA provided a wealth of data, but it did not provide any guidance on how to interpret their findings. The report indicates that PFAS was detected in 20% of the tilapia samples. However, they did not release the brand names of the fish they tested.
The FDA mentioned that their study had a limited number of samples. Based on this, they said they couldn’t draw conclusions about the safety of the country’s food supply.
All of this has left many people confused and afraid.
The FDA concluded their report by stating: currently “no scientific evidence” that the general public should be alarmed or avoid eating any foods due to these trace concentrations of chemicals.
What Can You Do
Consumers may be concerned by the recent information about PFAS in tilapia. Now that you understand the hazards your family is exposed to, what will you do to safeguard them?
The FDA indicated that the samples they found PFAS in were farmed tilapia filets They also let us know that the samples came from China and Honduras. You can avoid eating farmed tilapia that comes from these countries.
In addition, you’ll need to become your own best advocate and educate yourself on the topic. A good starting point is to read my article about which products contain PFAS.
Another way to protect your family from PFAS-contaminated food is to understand how food can become tainted. Common causes of food contamination are:
- growing food in contaminated soil
- watering plants with PFAS-contaminated water
- livestock that consume contaminated feed and water
- using PFAS-containing food packaging
- food processing equipment that includes PFAS
You should limit or avoid the following foods whenever possible:
- salmon and tuna (apex predators)
- clams and oysters (filter-feeders)
- microwave popcorn
- process foods (packaged in PFAS containing materials)
Regularly test your water to ensure it is free of harmful chemicals like PFAS. Read my guide on testing your water for PFAS.
The FDA’s findings have raised some concerns about the safety of consuming tilapia, as PFAS levels were found in concentrations ranging from non-detect to 95 parts per trillion.
While the agency noted that it could not draw definitive conclusions about the safety of PFAS levels in tilapia and other seafood, it is still important to be aware of these potential risks.
If you are concerned about whether or not your favorite type of tilapia contains PFAS, you can check to see if additional testing data are available. At this time, it is also important to be vigilant about food related risks associated with PFAS contamination.
Stay up to date on the latest news and advisories related to this issue so that you can make informed decisions about what seafood to eat.