Two members of New England’s congressional delegation are calling for a federal audit of PFAS chemicals in America’s food supply, with an eye toward understanding whether they can cause contamination.
The chemicals -- per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) -- are found in a variety of foods and food packaging, but the science is inconclusive about what they do to our bodies.
In June, the Food and Drug Administration issued a report on PFAS and said, “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.”
The stakes are high. The study of PFAS toxicity in humans is an emerging science, but a 2007 study from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found PFAS chemicals in 98% of its human blood samples. These chemicals are persistent, hard to break down, and can accumulate in the body over a person’s lifetime.
That makes them a potential health risk. PFAS chemicals have been linked to immune system problems in people and cancer in animals. Complicating that, said Cheryl Fields, a toxicologist with the state Department of Public Health, are the numbers.
“There are about 4,700 PFAS chemicals, of which we only know toxicity of about 12 of them,” Fields said. “And we’ve really only sufficiently studied, probably less than a handful, maybe four or five PFAS chemicals.”
Because of that, Congresswoman Rosa DeLauro said the FDA needs to do more about PFAS in the human food supply.
“We have asked the federal government’s non-partisan, non-political watchog, that’s the Government Accountability Office, the GAO, to do a study to determine what actions are being taken at the federal level to evaluate the prevalence and risk of chemical food contamination,” DeLauro said during a news conference Tuesday.
That letter, submitted in June, was co-signed by Maine Congresswoman Chellie Pingree.
In the meantime, DeLauro said PFAS chemicals should be banned from food packaging.
“Why would we not, until we know?” DeLauro said.
On Tuesday, a spokesperson for DeLauro’s office said, “we haven’t received an official confirmation that they’ve started an investigation yet, but we’re confident they will take up our request soon.”
An immediate federal ban is unlikely, although some states like Washington are phasing out the chemical’s use.
PFAS chemicals have been around since the 1940s. They’re used in firefighting foam, which has attracted recent attention following two high-profile accidents at Bradley Airport. Those incidents leaked PFAS into nearby rivers in Windsor.
Many PFAS chemicals are also impermeable to grease and oil, which makes them ideal food packaging for products like pizza and popcorn.
On its website, the FDA said it is reviewing “the limited authorized uses of PFAS in food contact applications” and that the agency is “committed to testing more foods, collaborating with other federal agencies, helping states develop their own testing capacities, and continuing to support responses to contamination events.”
But DeLauro said the way these chemicals come to market needs to be overhauled.
“There isn’t an approval process so that there is a review of the chemicals,” DeLauro said.
Instead, DeLauro said, current regulations require manufacturers to notify the FDA of its intent to use PFAS chemicals in food packaging and demonstrate the chemical is safe under its intended conditions of use. The FDA then has 120 days to object to that notification.
If it doesn’t, or if it fails to respond to the letter, the chemical is free to go to market.
“Meaning some products may be entering the market without FDA review,” DeLauro and Pingree wrote in their June letter.
“We are not sure which ones are in food packaging,” said Brian Toal, with the state Department of Public Health. “The most problematic ones that we look at in drinking water have been phased out of most food packaging, but they’ve been replaced with other ones and we don’t know what they are.”
“The next big problem in looking at food packaging is finding alternatives,” Toal said. “These chemicals serve a purpose in pizza boxes and popcorn bags. They keep grease from getting on the seat of your car. Adequate alternatives that do the same thing need to be identified before you can go ahead and ban the chemical outright.”
Still, scientific uncertainty hasn’t stopped states from moving ahead on the issue.
In 2018, Washington state restricted the use of PFAS in paper food wrappers, if safer alternatives are available. The state also banned any use of PFAS foams in firefighter training, although the FAA still requires airports to keep PFAS-filled firefighting chemicals on hand.
“This is complex,” DeLauro said. “There isn’t a very simple answer. We want to find out the answers.”