Delaware Public Media

FDA finds toxic PFAS chemicals in some foods during tests in Delaware

Jun 7, 2019

Federal regulators have found toxic PFAS chemicals in some foods during tests in eight states, including Delaware.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration confirmed that it found different levels of the chemicals in 14 kinds of meat and fish, and other foods including sweet potatoes, lettuce, and chocolate cake, in the tests in October 2017.

PFAS chemicals, which have been used in consumer products like nonstick cookware and flame-resistant fabrics, are being subjected to increasingly strict health limits by state regulators as more becomes known about their links to some cancers, low birth weights, elevated cholesterol, thyroid problems, and other illnesses.

The FDA tested for 16 PFAS chemicals and found one of them, PFOS, present in different kinds of meat and fish ranging from 134 to 865 parts per trillion (ppt). Those readings were all significantly higher than the 70 ppt recommended -- but not required -- by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency as the upper health limit for that chemical in drinking water.

Among the fish sampled, the highest level was found in tilapia, a fish that’s widely farmed, followed by catfish and salmon. The highest level in meat, 765 ppt, was found in ground turkey.

For chocolate cake with icing, the level of another type of PFAS chemical, PFPeA, was 17,640 ppt, or 252 times the EPA’s drinking-water limit.

Overall, the FDA tested 91 food samples in three unidentified eastern cities and found the chemicals in 14 of them.

The data were first presented in a poster at a recent conference in Helsinki, Finland, where they were photographed by an environmentalist, and then published by Environmental Working Group, a nonprofit that campaigns for tighter curbs on PFAS.

The poster also included details from another FDA study in July 2018 when it found 16 of the chemicals in some kinds of vegetables at farmers’ markets within 10 miles of a PFAS production plant where groundwater was known to be contaminated.

For both the studies, the FDA concluded that the PFAS levels found were unlikely to be a threat to human health. “Results indicate that PFAS concentrations measured in produce samples and TDS samples were not likely a human health concern from consumption,” it said in the presentation.

In a subsequent statement released June 11, the FDA said "while no PFAS compounds were detected in the majority of the foods sampled, varying levels of PFAS were found in 14 samples out of 91, but our safety assessment determined the products were not likely to be health concern at the levels that were detected. 

Peter Cassell, a spokesman for the FDA, confirmed the poster contained details of the agency’s research but declined to say where in Delaware the testing took place, what chemicals and levels were found in the state, or why FDA concluded the samples were not likely a health risk. He also did not respond to a question on why the agency kept the data under wraps for almost two years after obtaining it.

Delaware does not set its own PFAS standards but relies on the EPA’s drinking-water advisory for two of the chemicals, PFOA and PFOS, which advocates say is too high to protect public health. The EPA, which has been under pressure to set national PFAS benchmarks, said this year it intends to begin the process of setting health limits for PFOA and PFOS, by the end of 2019, but has not committed to regulating them.

In the absence of federal action, some states are setting their own strict regulations on some PFAS chemicals. New Jersey, a national leader on the issue, has adopted a low limit on one of the chemicals, PFNA, and is in the process of doing so for PFOA and PFOS.

In Pennsylvania,  Gov. Tom Wolf's administration has begun the process of setting its own health limits for six of the chemicals. Pennsylvania announced the plan in February, saying it would not wait any longer for the federal government to regulate the chemicals.

State regulations have so far focused on the chemicals in drinking water, so the new evidence that they are also present in the food supply is likely to renew calls for tighter rules to prevent risks to public health.

Delaware’s senior U.S. Senator, Tom Carper, said the FDA data highlight the need for Congress to quickly pass bipartisan legislation on curbing the chemicals.

Carper urged lawmakers to vote for three bills that would require EPA to speed up the implementation of EPA drinking water standards for PFOA and PFOS; designate PFAS as a hazardous substance, and to list 200 kinds of PFAS chemicals in the government’s Toxic Release Inventory.

“As Americans learn more about the ubiquity of PFAS in our environment and the extensive contamination in our water and food sources, understandably, there is a growing anxiety among the public about the dangers these chemicals pose to human health,” Carper said in a statement.

The Delaware Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Control said it was not planning any new regulation of PFAS in light of the new FDA data. “DNREC continues to work with the EPA to set a national MCL standard,” said DNREC spokesman Michael Globetti.  He added DNREC did not work with FDA on its tests for PFAS in food in 2017.

In New Jersey, officials last year advised anglers to avoid or limit eating fish caught in some water bodies known to be contaminated with the chemicals. Advocates have also warned that the chemicals can get into food via PFAS-contaminated packaging made in countries that have not banned the chemicals.

Another likely cause of PFAS in food is sewage spread on fields, activists say.

“The use of municipal and industrial sewage sludge contaminated with PFAS and used as a fertilizer on farm fields is also thought to be one of the ways PFAS chemicals find their way into crops grown for food,” said Colin O’Neil, legislative director for Environmental Working Group, during a conference call with reporters on June 6.

He said about half of the 7 million tons of sewage sludge generated by U.S. waste water treatment plants each year is applied to land including farm fields but the EPA does not require the sludge to be tested before being spread on fields.

One state, Maine, now requires sludge to be tested for PFAS before being spread on fields, O’Neil said.

EPA did not respond to a request for comment.

Jamie DeWitt, a professor of pharmacology and toxicology at East Carolina University, called the FDA data “another blow” to people who live in contaminated areas who are already subject to health concerns from the chemicals.

She said it’s not clear whether the PFAS levels reported by FDA represent more or less of a health threat than the chemicals in drinking water, but she argued that the data underscores the need for the government to do a comprehensive risk assessment of the chemicals that includes more than just drinking water.

PFAS chemicals, sometimes known as PFCs, have been used since the 1940s. Although some have been phased out by U.S. manufacturers, they do not break down in the environment, and so are still found in some water sources near sites where they have been produced or used, especially military bases where they have been used for years in firefighting foam.

At Dover Air Force Base in Dover, PFOA and PFOS were found in ground water at up to 2.8 million ppt, or 40,000 times higher than the EPA limit, in 2016, according to Department of Defense testing. In Wilmington, the chemicals were also found above the EPA limit at the New Castle Air National Guard Base and the Marine Corps Reserve Training Center.

In a separate information sheet sent to the media after the presentation circulated, FDA described its testing of other foods for PFAS in recent years. For example, it said cranberries taken in 2016 from a bog with known PFAS contamination showed no detectable PFAS. But 46 fish and seafood samples from an undisclosed location in 2013 showed 11 with PFAS.

The FDA attributed the food contamination to the widespread and persistent presence of the chemicals in soil and water. “Over time, PFAS levels from past and current uses can result in increasing levels of contamination of ground water and soil,” it said, adding that food can also become contaminated though packaging containing the chemicals.

The tests offer the latest evidence that sources of the chemicals are in more environmental media than just drinking water, said Tracy Carluccio of Delaware Riverkeeper Network, a Pennsylvania-based environmental group that has long campaigned for strict PFAS regulation.

“Water is the major pathway of PFAS ingestion for people because we drink so much water every day,” Carluccio said. “But food and other media are also sources of ingesting these highly toxic contaminants and must be thoroughly assessed by regulatory agencies. Delaware as a state needs to begin a process to adopt MCLs that reflect the contribution of all sources of PFAS because of the known presence of PFAS there.”

This story was updated June 12 to reflect a new FDA statement on its testing and that it found PFAS in 14 of 91 samples.  The FDA had previously said 10 of 91 samples.