FDA gets pushback on claim 'forever chemicals' in food are not a health concern

FDA gets pushback on claim 'forever chemicals' in food are not a health concern

An environmental watchdog group pushed back against Food and Drug Administration (FDA) claims that “forever chemicals” found in the food supply are not harmful. 

The Environmental Working Group sent FDA the results of a 2001 study by 3M, once one of the major producers of a class of chemicals abbreviated as PFAS, that found the substance in a number of food products and shows the company was aware of its spread for decades.

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“PFAS chemicals have contaminated the drinking water for at least 19 million Americans, but we know that food is one of the main pathways of exposure,” said David Andrews, a senior scientist with the Environmental Working Group. “The FDA needs to come clean and tell us the full extent of PFAS contamination in the American food supply and how long it’s been going on. More importantly, the agency must take immediate action to protect public health from these hazardous compounds.”

PFAS is used on a wide variety of nonstick products, but they are often referred to as forever chemicals given their persistence in the environment and even in humans. One study found the chemical in the blood of 98 percent of those tested.

The FDA’s own testing on PFAS in food came to light after a presentation the agency gave in Helsinki was leaked to U.S. media. The study found PFAS in 14 of 91 samples taken, but some categories of food like meat and store-baked chocolate cake contained high levels of the substance.

The FDA responded Tuesday saying that research so far suggests PFAS is not a human health concern

“The FDA does not have any indication that these substances are a human health concern... at the levels found in this limited sampling,” the agency said in the statement. “These data give our scientists a benchmark to use as we continue our critical work studying this emerging area of science.”

The Environmental Working Group and others argue that conclusion contradicts lawsuits and a building body of evidence linking PFAS with certain types of cancer and other health problems.

Robert Bilott, an attorney who has led lawsuits against 3M, sent a letter to the FDA on Wednesday including a copy of the 2001 3M study.

“Please also confirm the extent to which FDA (or any other agency) has assessed the impact of the American public having been exposed to such levels of PFAS in food for such an extended period of time, without their knowledge,” Bilott wrote.

The FDA said they were reviewing Bilott’s letter.

“The FDA’s work looking into the emerging science around PFAS is ongoing. We’ve been working to measure PFAS concentrations in food, estimating dietary exposure and determining the associated health effects. Although FDA’s scientists are at the forefront of developing new and more sensitive testing methods to measure PFAS in foods, this work does not occur in isolation,” a spokesperson said.

“We’re also working closely with our federal and state partners, as well as looking at published peer reviewed literature and other relevant data and information, to advance the science of PFAS detection and better understand the potential health risks associated with PFAS exposures.”

3M’s 2001 study found PFAS in a wide variety of food including chicken, green beans, eggs, hotdogs, apples, milk and ground beef.

A 2018 lawsuit against 3M from Minnesota focused on negative health impacts from PFAS in water, but also brought to light documents that showed the company kept internal concerns about its products from the public. The suit settled for $850 million. 

One 1999 resignation letter from a 3M employee that surfaced as part of the lawsuit said the company was sidelining scientists in order to keep the products’ danger under wraps.

“For me it is unethical to be concerned with markets, legal defensibility and image over environmental safety," former 3M employee Richard Purdy wrote in a letter reported on by the Detroit Free Press.

3M said that it did hand over the 2001 study to the Environmental Protection Agency.

"This report is one of thousands of documents we have placed in the public domain related to the study of PFAS chemistries. We will continue to engage with members of our communities, elected officials and regulators to share information about these chemistries,” the company said in a statement to The Hill.