What are PFAS?
Perfluoroalkyl or polyfluoroalkyl substances, collectively referred to as PFAS, are a large group of synthetic chemicals used in many manufacturing processes, including some food packaging and production. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) authorizes certain PFAS for food packaging and food-contact materials because of their nonstick properties and ability to repel water and oils. Examples of food-related PFAS applications include food wrappers, microwaveable popcorn bags, takeout containers and pet food bags. However, in 2016 the FDA revoked the authorization of some classes of PFAS, and the packaging industry is currently phasing out others. PFAS may also be found in some consumer goods such as cosmetics and personal care products.
Exposure to PFAS
Humans are primarily exposed to PFAS through food, but PFAS can also be found in the environment. Because PFAS have a long half-life – the amount of time it takes a chemical to break down and are relatively ubiquitous, they can contaminate soil and water used for food production. Over time, PFAS may accumulate in plant and animal foods, including fish that come in close contact with, or consume contaminated substances. Long-term consumption of foods contaminated with PFAS, or other exposures, such as in manufacturing facilities and contact with firefighting chemicals, can cause PFAS to accumulate in humans. Concerns about PFAS contamination in food production are handled at the state level, with the FDA offering technical assistance.
Potential Dietary Sources of PFAS
It is estimated that the most significant dietary source of PFAS is fish and shellfish. The FDA has been testing for PFAS in foods such as produce, meat, dairy, grain, carbonated water, non-carbonated bottled water, seafood and milk. Low levels of PFAS have been detected in vegetables, honey, dairy products, eggs, various meat products and both bottled and tap water. PFAS in soil and water can be taken up in foods, but the actual levels can depend on the type of food and the specific PFAS involved.
The Public Health Impact of PFAS Exposure
Scientists are working to better understand PFAS and their impact on human health. According to the FDA, low levels of PFAS consumption are unlikely to pose a health risk, but long-term exposure poses concerns. Human studies show that PFAS may cause increased total and LDL cholesterol levels, a major risk factor for heart disease. Other studies suggest that PFAS could impact infant birth weight and thyroid function.
Since the 1990s, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has been monitoring PFAS levels in blood, also known as serum levels, to help determine overall human exposure. The ongoing CDC study indicates that PFAS can be found in the blood of virtually every American, suggesting widespread human exposure. But it is important to note that measurable amounts of PFAS in our bodies will not necessarily cause negative health impacts. The CDC provides reference values for PFAS – normal ranges in the general population, to help public health agencies and organizations learn more about PFAS exposure. Reference values are crucial to the scientific understanding of exposure and the potential impact on human health.
Reducing Dietary Exposure to PFAS
The FDA does not currently recommend avoiding foods to limit PFAS exposure. Most foods that are grown or produced outside PFAS-contaminated areas do not have detectable levels of PFAS. But even foods produced in areas contaminated with PFAS will not necessarily contain the chemicals. To maintain optimal health, the FDA recommends eating a highly varied and well-balanced diet.
This article was written by Casey Terrell, MPH, RD.
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