If you’ve been paying attention to the news lately, you may have heard about PFAS contaminants in food. While the extent of the contamination is still being determined, it’s important to be aware of what PFAS are and how they can affect your health.
PFAS are a group of man-made chemicals that have been used in a variety of industries since the 1950s. They’re prized for their resistance to heat, oil, stains, and water, which makes them ideal for use in non-stick cookware, food packaging, and even clothing.
Unfortunately, PFAS are also extremely persistent in the environment and can accumulate in the human body over time. Studies have linked exposure to PFAS with a variety of health problems, including cancer, liver damage, and reproductive issues.
Recent testing conducted by the FDA and European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) have found PFAS compounds in a variety of foods. These forever chemicals were found in salmon, shrimp, and milk. The FDA reported that, despite the presence of PFAS in certain foods, the US food supply is still safe. Other experts, however, are not so sure.
If you’re concerned about PFAS contamination in food, continue reading. We discuss PFAS, how it affects your food, and what you can do to protect yourself and your family.
What Is PFAS
PFAS is an acronym for perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl substances. These are a group of man-made chemicals that have been used in a variety of industries since the 1950s.
PFAS are prized for their resistance to heat, oil, stains, and water. This makes them ideal for use in non-stick cookware, food packaging, and even clothing.
PFAS are also extremely persistent in the environment. This means they don’t break down easily and can accumulate in the human body over time. For this reason, PFAS are sometimes referred to as “forever chemicals.”
PFAS Health Concerns
PFAS have been linked to a variety of health problems, including cancer, liver damage, and reproductive issues.
The FDA has determined that low levels of PFAS consumption won’t likely pose a health risk, but long-term exposure is a concern. Human studies show an increase in total and LDL cholesterol. Over time, this can lead to heart disease.
Studies have found that PFAS could potentially cause decreased birth weight in infants. Other research has found exposure to PFAS impairs thyroid function.
Which Foods Contain PFAS?
The American public is primarily exposed to PFAS through food and water. PFAS chemicals take a long time to break down and can contaminate soil and water used for food production. Over time, these contaminants accumulate in plant and animal foods, including fish that come in close contact with, or consume contaminated substances.
The FDA conducted an extensive sampling program of processed foods to determine the levels of PFAS contamination. The FDA found that the vast majority of foods tested had no detectable levels of PFAS. However, some foods did test positive for PFAS contamination.
The results of the FDA study are summarized below.
Meat and PFAS
FDA testing found PFAS in some meat products, including beef, pork, and chicken. The vast majority of meat products tested, however, had no detectable levels of PFAS.
Beef from a farm in Michigan was recently found to have 1.9 parts per billion (ppb) of perfluorooctane sulfonic acid (PFOS). These levels are not above Michigan’s action levels, but state health professionals said long-term consumption of the meat could pose a public health risk.
Cattle, pigs, and poultry are exposed to PFAS from several sources, including:
- contaminated feed, primarily grown in PFAS-laden sewage sludge used as fertilizer
- PFAS-containing water
Are PFAS in vegetables?
Most of the FDA testing conducted on vegetables showed no PFAS contamination.
PFAS can be absorbed by plants from contaminated soil and irrigation water, according to research. Although we have made some progress, there is not enough information to predict how much PFAS will end up in a particular plant.
Does seafood have PFAS in it?
According to researchers, the main dietary source of PFAS is fish and shellfish.
The FDA collected 532 food samples and tested them for PFAS. Ten samples had detectable levels of PFAS compounds, eight of which were seafood. The seafood samples that tested positive for PFAS were:
- tilapia (3 samples)
- cod (2 samples)
- fish sticks (1 sample)
- shrimp (1 sample)
- canned tuna (1 sample)
The FDA conducted another round of food testing and found even more contamination in seafood products. They found PFAS in:
Most of the seafood in this study were imported to the United States. Compared to previous studies, this research revealed:
- more samples were contaminated with PFAS
- a greater number of different PFAS compounds were detected
- the contamination was higher than previous testing results
Articles about PFAS in seafood you may be interested in:
Is My Food Safe
The FDA has not established maximum levels for PFAS in foods, but they are working on it. In the meantime, the FDA recommends that people limit their consumption of certain foods known to be contaminated with PFAS.
The bottom line is that we don’t yet know the full extent of PFAS contamination in our food supply.
Read about PFAS in milk.
What does the FDA say about food safety?
In the FDA’s most recent food safety study, they noted that the US food supply “is among the safest in the world.”
They also noted: “we have found that most foods not grown or produced in specific geographic areas with known PFAS contamination do not have detectable levels of PFAS.”
The FDA advises that people eat a balanced, varied diet for optimum nutrition and food safety.
How much PFAS can I eat?
The US government has established limits for contaminants like PFAS in our drinking water – the Maximum Contaminant Levels. Unfortunately, they have not created a similar standard for safe levels of PFAS in food.
Various other government agencies across the globe have established different levels and guidelines.
The EFSA, Europe’s equivalent of our FDA, set a limit for combined exposure to 4 PFAS compounds in food. Their limit for the combined total of PFAS compounds is 4.4 ng/kg of body weight per week.
How PFAS Gets into Your Food
PFAS gets into our food in several ways. The five most common are:
1 – Water used in agriculture
When PFAS contaminated water is used to water crops, the PFAS can end up in the food. This is especially true of fruits and vegetables that are grown in water-logged soils, like rice.
In one study, researchers found that when they fed pigs water contaminated with PFAS, the levels of PFAS in the pig’s liver increased by 700%.
2 – Contaminated soil
Plants grown in PFAS contaminated soil can absorb the PFAS through their roots. The plants then concentrate the PFAS in their leaves and fruit.
The FDA and various state health agencies warn consumers not to eat food grown in areas of known PFAS contamination.
Researchers found that carrots grown in PFAS contaminated soil had levels of PFAS that were 100 times higher than the carrots grown in clean soil.
3 – Livestock feed
If livestock are fed contaminated food, the PFAS can end up in their meat and milk.
A study of dairy cows found that when they were fed contaminated feed, their milk had levels of PFAS that were 12 times higher than when they were not fed contaminated feed. PFAS tends to accumulate in animal fat, so fatty meats are more likely to be contaminated than lean meats.
4 – PFAS in lakes, rivers, and oceans
Fish and other seafood can absorb PFAS from the water they live in. They can also absorb PFAS from the food they eat.
Plankton and other microscopic sea life absorb PFAS from the water and then are eaten by larger fish. This can cause contamination to move up the food chain, with larger fish having higher levels of PFAS than smaller fish.
5 – Food packaging
The FDA allows PFAS-containing materials to be used in food packaging materials. These contaminants can transfer from food packaging into the food itself. The longer the food is in contact with the contaminated packaging, the more PFAS will transfer into the food.
The FDA recommends that consumers avoid eating food that has been in contact with PFAS-containing packaging materials for more than a few hours.
What Can I Do About PFAS in Food
Many people are concerned about PFAS contaminants in our food. What can we do about it?
The FDA advises that people eat a balanced, varied diet for optimum nutrition and food safety. They also recommend that people avoid eating food grown in areas of known PFAS contamination.
You can also take steps to reduce your own exposure to PFAS. Some tips include:
- Avoid fast food and packaged foods
- Shop at stores that have taken “No PFAS” pledges
- Limit contact between food and containers
- Test your drinking water
- Avoid other sources of PFAS
Can I test my food?
Unfortunately, there are no tests for measuring PFAS in food that are available to the public. The FDA does not require food manufacturers to test for PFAS.
For now, we have to rely on the FDA and other health agencies to test foods and set limits for PFAS contamination.
Does bottled water have PFAS in it?
Some bottled waters have PFAS contamination. Several studies have been done on bottled water to determine if they have PFAS in them.
The US government does not require bottled water manufacturers to test for PFAS, but some companies do test their products. You can check the website of your favorite brand to see if they have information on PFAS testing.
Read my article about PFAS in bottled water.
How do I avoid eating PFAS with my food?
The FDA recommends that people eat a balanced, varied diet for optimum nutrition and food safety. They also recommend that people avoid eating food grown in areas of known PFAS contamination.
You can also take steps to reduce your own exposure to PFAS by following the tips in this article.
It is important to be aware of the health risks associated with PFAS and take steps to reduce your exposure. The good news is that there are things you can do to limit your intake of these chemicals.
Avoiding processed meat, eating vegetables and fruits that have been grown in soil without contamination, and choosing seafood from uncontaminated sources are all excellent ways to reduce your risk. You can also test your food for PFAS levels, though this may not always be accurate. Taking some simple precautions will help you keep yourself and your family safe from the dangers of PFAS contamination.