Last week, the state of New Hampshire filed a lawsuit against DuPont, 3M, and six other companies for contamination that it says has been caused by perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl substances, a group of more than 5,000 man-made chemicals that are commonly abbreviated as PFAS. Although PFAS have been used in a wide range of products—including non-stick cookware, stain-defending carpets, fast food wrappers, pizza boxes, and weatherproof patio furniture—the PFOS and PFOA varieties have also been connected to serious health problems, including certain kinds of cancers, liver damage, and an increased risk of miscarriage in pregnant women.
“The actions we are taking today is intended to ensure that those responsible for PFAS contamination to our state’s drinking water supplies and other natural resources are held accountable,” New Hampshire Attorney General Gordon McDonald said, according to the Associated Press. “As alleged in the lawsuits, the defendants possessed unique knowledge of the dangers of PFAS chemicals but continued to make or sell them without warning the public of their health risks.”
New York has also filed a lawsuit against six companies that make PFAS and PFOS-containing firefighting foam, alleging that it has contaminated the drinking water and the groundwater supplies in three communities in the state. Vermont recently announced that it will start testing its public water systems for PFAS by the end of the year. And 3M has previously settled a lawsuit with the state of Minnesota, over its own PFAS-related water contamination.
“The ubiquity of PFAS means they are found in virtually all Americans’ blood, as well as in the drinking water of about 16 million people in the U.S.,” The Guardian warns.
All of the above is why recently released findings from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration are extra unsettling. According to leaked documents that the FDA presented at a scientific conference in Helsinki, Finland, PFAS have been detected in meats, dairy products, leafy greens, and even store-bought chocolate cake that were collected and analyzed in October 2017.
PFAS were detected in nearly half of the poultry, red meat, and fish samples that were tested, and those levels were “double or more the only currently existing federal advisory level,” according to the Associated Press. The amount of PFAS in the chocolate cake was more than 250 times higher than the federal guidelines for PFAS in drinking water.
The FDA’s documents also revealed that PFAS were found in lettuce, cabbage, kale, and collard greens that were purchased at farmers’ markets in an unnamed location in the eastern United States; some of the affected vegetables came from a produce stand that was 10 miles downstream from a PFAS production plant.
The agency also found contaminated milk at a dairy farm that was “within close proximity” to a New Mexico Air Force base that uses PFOS, a variation of PFAS. “PFOS has a slow elimination rate from milk, even after exposure is stopped,” the FDA wrote. “With a half-life of 56 days, it would take 1.5 years to eliminate PFOS from the cow after a 30 day exposure period.” (The lengthy half-life of PFAS—and the difficulty in removing them from the environment—is why they’re often referred to as “forever chemicals.”)
“Measuring PFAS concentrations in food, estimating dietary exposure and determining the associated health effects is an emerging area of science,” the FDA said in a statement to the AP, and a spokesperson also said that these instances of contamination were “not likely to be a human health concern.” (Except for the milk: that was deemed “unfit for human consumption” and destroyed.)
Environmental organizations are already calling for larger-scale research into PFAS contamination. “[W]e applaud FDA for getting the investigation started and recommend that, given these results, it reduce PFAS contamination in the food supply,” the Environmental Defense Fund wrote on its blog. “Specifically, the agency should test food more extensively, including for the forms of PFAS the agency currently allows to be used; identify the sources for high levels of PFAS by investigating the supply chain; and ensure that no PFAS is used because of the [Generally Recognized as Safe] loophole.”
Linda Birnbaum, the director of the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences, said that future studies need to go beyond farmers’ markets and supermarkets. “We have to look at total human exposure, not just what’s in the water in or what’s in the food,” she told the AP. “We need to look at the sum totals of what the exposures are.”
In the meantime, some of our favorite foods are looking a little bit terrifying.