Last week, we learned that the Food and Drug Administration had detected PFAS compounds in pineapple, sweet potato, meat, and chocolate cake. The presence of the industrial compounds in our food was made public by the Environmental Working Group after a staff member of the Environmental Defense Fund took photos of the research at a scientific conference in Europe.
While the FDA fields questions about why it didn’t present this information to the public itself (the agency released the data along with a statement on Tuesday), it has become clear that 3M, the company that originally developed PFOS and PFOA, had known for a very long time that these toxic and persistent chemicals were in our food.
According to a 2001 study sponsored by 3M, 12 samples of food from around the country — including ground beef, bread, apples, and green beans — tested positive for either PFOA or PFOS. One piece of bread had 14,700 parts per trillion of PFOA, though the report noted that the sample was considered “suspect.”
The Environmental Protection Agency has known about the study for years, but it is not clear if the FDA was aware of the research. The Environmental Working Group mentioned the 3M study in a 2002 report on PFAS chemicals and alerted the Centers for Disease Control.
On Tuesday, attorney Rob Bilott wrote to the FDA to ask “the extent to which FDA was aware of the data collected on behalf of the 3M company in 2001 that confirmed elevated levels of PFAS in the U.S. food supply.” In 1999, Bilott sued DuPont over PFOA contamination around its plant in Parkersburg, West Virginia, where the company used the chemical to make Teflon. Through his litigation, he acquired many documents about PFAS, which he has since supplied to the EPA, FDA, and other federal agencies.
The EPA did not respond to questions about when exactly it became aware of the 3M study. 3M provided the following statement:
In 2001, 3M published the Multi-City Food Study and we shared this report with the EPA within seven days. 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.
Tuesday’s FDA statement noted that recent tests “did not detect PFAS in the vast majority of the foods tested.” The statement also said that “based on the best available current science, the FDA does not have any indication that these substances are a human health concern, in other words a food safety risk in human food, at the levels found in this limited sampling.”
Yet there is abundant evidence that even at very low levels, both chemicals interfere with human immunity, reproduction, and development, and cause multiple health problems, including elevated cholesterol, thyroid disease, and cancer. Virtually everyone has some PFAS chemicals in their blood. They enter the body through food, water, dust, and exposure to consumer products.
There are several possible ways the industrial chemicals enter food supplies, including contaminated groundwater and through sewage sludge, which has been spread on crops around the country for decades.
New research presented at a PFAS conference at Northeastern University this week suggests other impacts of the chemicals, including increased hospitalizations of children for infectious diseases; reduced kidney function; and changes in hormone levels at birth and during childhood. A study done in West Africa on the relation between PFAS levels on the effect of the measles vaccine added to evidence that the chemicals interfere with childhood immunity and weaken the effect of vaccines. Another study from Harvard Medical School’s Department of Population Medicine found that high PFAS levels were associated with a diet high in low-fiber carbohydrates, fish, and high-fat meat.
Update: June 13, 2019
This article has been updated with a statement from 3M.