From Popcorn to Seafood, and Pizza to Water, Beware of the Chemicals Known as PFAS

In the movie Dark Waters, a corporate lawyer discovers a huge environmental disaster involving PFAS. The movie is based on a true story about the PFOA contamination by DuPont, one of the largest chemical companies in the world. The movie has greatly increased awareness of PFAS, and the potential harm they can cause. But PFAS are a concern even if you don't live near a chemical factory.

Per- and Polyflouroalkyl compounds, also known as PFAS, are a group of man-made chemicals. PFAS were first manufactured in the U.S. in the 1930s. Similar man-made chemicals include PFOA, PFOS, GenX, and more. They are used in many items such as food containers, household items, carpets and fire fighting foam. They are found in water and can accumulate in living organisms.

This group of over 4,000 chemicals is suspected of causing health problems. Among other problems, PFAS can cause immune, thyroid, kidney, and reproductive problems. In 2006, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) hosted the PFOA Stewardship Program. The EPA invited eight major U.S. chemical manufacturers to agree to eliminate the chemical PFOA by 2015, because the EPA regarded PFOA as one of the most hazardous chemicals found in PFAS. Now, more than 180 companies worldwide have agreed to ban the production, and the use of PFOA. But, manufacturing continues overseas and PFOA’s continue to be imported into the U.S.

PFAS can be found in many household products. Notably, they are found in microwave popcorn bags, burger wrappers, and food packaging in general. Recently, researchers discovered that people who ate microwave popcorn had higher levels of PFAS in their blood. People who ate shellfish also had higher levels of PFAS. The National Health and Nutrition Examination Study (NHANES) is a program designed to assess the health and nutritional progress of adults and children. As a result of their studies, the researchers found an antidote: eating at home.

Environmental health researcher Philipe Grandjean, who works at Harvard and the University of Southern Denmark, traveled to the Faroe Islands, where he followed 490 children, from birth to age five. In the Faroe Islands, PFAS exposure is very common because of how much marine food is there. Grandjean’s conclusion was that tetanus and diphtheria vaccinations in children were less effective due to the high levels of PFAS in their bloodstream.

Many scientists and environmentalists have been drawing awareness to PFAS, but it hasn’t been enough. The FDA analyzed 91 different foods for PFAS contamination. Out of those 91, 14 had traces of PFAS. Marciel Maffini is a biologist who consults with environmental groups. She learned of one product, chocolate cake with chocolate icing, which contained 17,640 parts-per-trillion of PFPeA, which is a chemical found in PFAS. This is hundreds of times the FDA-approved level for drinking water, which is 70 parts-per-trillion. However, the FDA said that none of the levels shown in the test were a health concern, and the standard doesn't apply to food products, like chocolate frosting.

Lynn Dyer, president of the Foodservice Packaging Institute states, that the companies make what the customers want. As public awareness changes, she believes that companies will change their products, “If the customer doesn’t want PFAS in our packaging, the packaging industry will design alternatives to meet the needs of the customers.”

[Sources: Wired; EPA; Associated Press]

Wow very informative article! Thank you very much for this. – BrandonMADISON (2019-12-12 15:27)
Great work, Mariama! This is such an interesting and crucial topic, thank you for doing it justice. – LeilaMadison West High School (2019-12-12 15:38)
This article was very interesting, and I learned new things! Thank you! – YoannaMADISON (2019-12-12 15:42)
Great article Mariama! I think I'll be making popcorn the old-fashioned way in the future. I hope you keep writing! – BenMonona (2019-12-12 16:48)