Potentially Harmful “Forever Chemicals” Are Lurking In Your Food, Says the FDA

PFAS are resistant to breakdown—and have been linked to a slew of health problems.

what are pfas chemicals
(Image credit: Fudio)
  • The Food and Drug Administration has confirmed that “forever chemicals,” officially known as PFAS, have infiltrated our food supply.
  • PFAS are very resistant to breakdown in people and in the environment, and have been linked to a slew of health problems.
  • A toxicology expert explains what PFAS chemicals are, why they may be dangerous, and how to potentially avoid them.

The idea of any kind of chemical making its way into your meal is freaky, but the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has just confirmed that a particularly persistent class of chemicals has infiltrated our food supply. They’re called PFAS (short for perfluoroalky and polyfluoroalkyl substances), and they’re known as “forever chemicals” because they’re tough to break down in both the environment and your body.

The FDA recently investigated PFAS and presented the findings at the 29th annual European meeting of the Society of Environmental Toxicology and Chemistry in Helsinki in late May. The Environmental Working Group shared photos of the FDA’s presentation online, and the agency later confirmed that they were correct.

For its research, the FDA tested a dairy farm near a US Air Force Base where firefighting foams containing PFAS have been used. The agency found that local water samples tested for PFAS levels at 35 times greater than the current Environmental Protection Agency health advisory of 70 parts per trillion.

The researchers tested 13 samples from the farm, including animal feed and milk samples, and found that all had detectable levels of PFAS. While the milk was discarded, the FDA pointed out that the cows would still have PFAS in their bodies for 1.5 years after eating and drinking contaminated food and water for 30 days. The FDA also tested produce samples from farms close to a PFAS manufacturing plant and found that, of 20 samples tested, 15 had detectable levels of PFAS.

What’s more, common items like grocery store meat and seafood—and even off-the-shelf chocolate cake—also contained worrisome levels of PSAS, the Associated Press reports.

The FDA is actually planning to present the findings on their website later this week, but they gave CNN advance copy of the text. “Due to potential health concerns related to these chemicals, the FDA is working to better understand the potential dietary exposure to PFAS” it will read, per CNN.

PFAS sound pretty bad, but it’s understandable that you might not be 100 percent well versed in them and what they do. Here’s what you need to know about these “forever chemicals” and how they affect your body.

What are PFAS, exactly?

PFAS are largely used for their ability to repel oil and water. They’re often found in non-stick products, stains, paints, cleaning products, food packages, and firefighting foams.

PFAS “contain very strong chemical bonds, and are very resistant to breakdown in people and in the environment,” says Jamie Alan, PhD, an assistant professor of pharmacology and toxicology at Michigan State University. Unfortunately, PFAS “can easily get into the air, food, soil, and water,” Alan says.

Why are PFAS potentially dangerous?

Once you’re exposed to PFAS, they can accumulate in your body. “They aren’t easily broken down,” Alan says. “Once in the body, they settle in the liver, kidney, and blood.”

PFAS have been linked to a slew of diseases like obesity, hormone suppression and infertility, liver and thyroid disease, and cancer, as well as increased cholesterol, Alan says.

However, research that has linked PFAS with these health issues is only correlative, meaning experts can’t prove that PFAS actually caused these diseases—just that people with these diseases are also more likely to have had PFAS exposure. “We are just beginning to understand the ramifications of these compounds,” Alan says.

How can you avoid PFAS?

It’s actually pretty hard. One study from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) found that PFAS chemicals are detected in the blood of 98 percent of the American population. “These chemicals are everywhere,” Alan says.

However, there are some steps you can take to at least lower your exposure. Contaminated drinking water is a big source of PFAS exposure, so Alan recommends using a water filter when you can.

“Other places you can find these chemicals include fast food containers, microwave popcorn bags, pizza boxes, and candy wrappers,” she says. “Avoiding these products would be another way to avoid the chemicals.” Alan also recommends carefully inspecting labels on things like cookware, cleaning products, and personal care items. Finally, she recommends taking a pass on non-stick pans and opting for things like cast iron pans instead.

Again, it’s hard to say for sure what kind of impact PFAS can have on your body—but it doesn’t look positive.

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Korin Miller

Korin Miller is a freelance writer specializing in general wellness, sexual health and relationships, and lifestyle trends, with work appearing in Men’s Health, Women’s Health, Self, Glamour, and more. She has a master’s degree from American University, lives by the beach, and hopes to own a teacup pig and taco truck one day.