There's been growing concern about "forever chemicals" like PFAS in food, cosmetics and other consumer products. But a new FDA study found no measurable PFAS in a sampling of processed foods, including baby food.
Another study published today, however, found the chemicals widely present in indoor air in homes, classrooms and offices.
PFAS are called "forever chemicals" because they don't break down in the body. Instead, they accumulate and are linked at certain levels to cancer, birth defects, liver disease, thyroid disease, decreased immunity, hormone disruption, and a range of other serious health problems.
But the FDA's survey showed that 164 of the 167 foods tested had no detectable levels of PFAS. Three food samples collected as part of the FDA’s latest testing effort did have detectable levels of PFAS: fish sticks, canned tuna and protein powder.
"Based on the best available current science, the FDA has no scientific evidence that the levels of PFAS found in the samples tested indicate a need to avoid any particular food in the food supply," the agency said in a news release.
What are PFAS?
PFAS refers to per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances. They have been widely used since the 1940s and are now present throughout the environment, occurring in soil, water and living organisms.
Their use has been phased out in several industries but they are still widely used in cosmetics, which unlike food are largely unregulated. There's no easy way for consumers to tell whether their lipstick, nail polish and other everyday items contain PFAS, although Congress is considering legislation that would change that.
PFAS found in indoor air
But while the FDA study may be somewhat comforting, another study found that the air we breathe in our homes, schools, and workplaces can be polluted with PFAS.
The study, published today in Environmental Science & Technology Letters, relied on a new measurement technique that detected PFAS chemicals in the air of kindergarten classrooms, university offices and laboratories, and a home—some with levels as high as those measured at an outdoor clothing company and carpet stores selling PFAS-treated products.
“Food and water are known to be major sources of PFAS exposure,” said Rainer Lohmann, senior author of the study and professor of oceanography at the University of Rhode Island. “Our study shows that indoor air, including dust, is another source of exposure to potentially harmful forever chemicals.
"In fact, for children in homes or schools with old PFAS-treated carpets, inhalation may be even more important than dust as an exposure pathway to volatile PFAS that eventually could biotransform to more persistent and harmful PFAS,” Lohmann said in a news release.
While families, schools, and workplaces can reduce indoor air levels of PFAS by replacing carpets, there are still many other products that can emit volatile PFAS into indoor air, including clothing, shoes, building products, and furnishings, the researchers said.
“As long as they continue to be used in products, we’ll all be eating, drinking, and breathing PFAS,” said Tom Bruton, a co-author and senior scientist at the Green Science Policy Institute. “We need to turn off the tap and stop all unnecessary uses of PFAS as soon as possible.”
Seafood may be an issue
While the FDA did not find detectable levels of PFAS in most of the processed foods it studied, the same can't be said for seafood, which is often not sold as nationally distributed processed packages.
Because of the small sample sizes studied so far, "the results cannot be used to draw definitive conclusions about the levels of PFAS in seafood in the general food supply," FDA said. The agency has previously announced that it is conducting a targeted survey of the most commonly consumed seafood in the U.S.
Consumer products, the workplace, everywhere else
PFAS are also found in the workplace – especially electronics manufacturing, oil recovery and chrome plating – and in everyday consumer products, including stain- and water-repellent fabrics, nonstick products (e.g., Teflon), polishes, waxes, paints, cleaning products, and fire-fighting foams, according to the Environmental Protection Agency.
PFAS are also widely present just about everywhere, since they do not break down over time and, in fact, continue to accumulate. They are found in humans, other animals and fish, as well as in water and soil.
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