Toxic chemicals invade food supply, store shelves
As Americans become increasingly health conscious and embrace the importance of a healthy diet, more attention is being paid to ingredients and nutritional information of the food being purchased, but food contaminants from pesticides and other chemicals in the environment that infiltrate the food system are being consumed by millions of adults and children every day without their knowledge.
Most consumers have been taught since childhood to wash off fruits and vegetables to remove pesticides, dirt and other contaminants. And concerns about unknown substances and residues in our food have helped to spur the popularity of organic foods. But food tests conducted in recent years – as well as recently uncovered tests dating back nearly two decades – show that dangerous pesticides and toxic PFAS chemicals have been found in everything from organic fruits and vegetables to chocolate cake and adult and children's cereal.
Results of food tests released in June of 2019 commissioned by the non-profit Environmental Working Group found what it deemed "troubling levels" of the pesticide glyphosate in all 21 oat-based cereals and snack products sampled in its latest round of testing. Those foods included some of the nation's most popular brands of food. Previous tests showed similar results, including detectable levels of the pesticide in organic foods that were never directly treated with the weed killer.
Glyphosate, the main active ingredient in the weedkiller Roundup, is one of the most widely used pesticides on the planet. In 2015, the International Agency for Research on Cancer, which is part of the World Health Organization, classified glyphosate as "probably carcinogenic to humans." In 2017, glyphosate was classified as a known carcinogen by California's Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment. Since August of 2018, three California juries have awarded more than $3.3 billion in three separate verdicts against Bayer-Monsanto over claims that Roundup caused cancer and that Monsanto knew about the risk for decades and went through extraordinary lengths to cover it up.
Likewise, PFAS – a group of more than 5,000 chemical compounds that have been linked to serious health illnesses – has been found in everything from public water supplies to ground hamburger. Testing by federal regulators led to the license revocation of a New Mexico dairy farmer whose product was tainted by the toxic chemicals. Further, food tests conducted by 3M, one of the former leading producers of PFAS chemicals in the United States, found PFAS in various foods at supermarkets across the country, but kept the findings secret for nearly 20 years. Meanwhile, PFAS chemicals in some fast food packaging continues to contaminate food across the country on a daily basis.
Perfluoroalkyl substances and polyfluoralkyl substances, better known as PFAS, are a class of chemicals that include thousands of compounds. The substances have been used in various stain-resistant clothing applications, non-stick cookware, firefighting foam, chrome plating, the production of Scotchgard, and many other applications. While main sources of production have been taken out of use, PFAS aren't easily broken down by sunlight, microbes or other processes, earning them the moniker "forever chemicals."
As some PFAS accumulates in the blood and tissues of plants, animals and humans, they may accumulate in a person's body over the course of their life. The chemicals have been linked to kidney and testicular cancer, decreased antibody responses to vaccines, liver damage, thyroid disease, increased risk of asthma, decreased fertility, birth weights and other ailments.
The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention measured a dozen different PFAS in the blood serum (the clear portion of blood) of participants 12-years and older who have taken part in the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey since 1999. Scientists found four PFAS chemicals in the serum of nearly all of the people tested, including widespread exposure to PFAS in the U.S. population.
In June, the federal Food and Drug Administration (FDA) in its most recent tests found levels of PFAS chemicals in various fruits and vegetables, cheese and milk. The agency said PFAS wasn't detected in a majority of foods tested. Further, officials said there isn't any indication that those found pose a safety risk to human food.
"Overall, the findings didn't detect PFAS in the vast majority of foods tested," the FDA said in a statement. "In addition, based on the best available science, the FDA doesn't 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 the limited sampling."
The statement is of little assurance to health and environment advocates who say the federal government is lagging in its oversight of the food system when it comes to PFAS and other contaminants. Meanwhile, some states, including Michigan, tired of waiting on the federal government to solidify rules and regulations on PFAS have begun putting their own regulations in place.
"A big problem right now, as it's related to (PFAS) food testing is that we, meaning the state, have been looking for guidance from the federal government – both the FDA and the USDA (United States Department of Agriculture), not only on criteria but on protocol. How do you test for PFAS in the food supply?" questioned Thomas Zimnicki, agricultural policy director with the Michigan Environmental Council (MEC). "Absent that, Michigan isn't dissimilar from other states, but we are being a bit more reactionary. But there's no standard out there on how they should be testing for PFAS in the food supply."
Two of the most studied PFAS are perflurooctanoic acid (PFOA) and perfluorooctane sulfonate (PFOS), which were widely used in upholstery, food packaging, cookware and other uses. In the United States, PFOA was produced by DuPont to make Teflon, while PFOS was produced by 3M to make Scotchgard.
In 2009, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) published provisional drinking water health advisories for the two PFAS chemicals, with levels for PFOS set at 200 parts per trillion (ppt) and 400 ppt for PFOS. Those levels were updated in 2016, when the EPA set lifetime health advisories that combined the two chemicals and set a 70 ppt advisory levels. However, because the levels are considered "advisory" levels, there remains no real regulation for PFAS at the federal level. Michigan is currently in the process of establishing its own regulatory levels for PFAS, with levels much lower, including 6 ppt for PFNA; 8 ppt for PFOA; 16 ppt for PFOS; 51 ppt for PFHxS; 370 ppt for GenX; 420 ppt for PFBS; and 400,000 ppt for PFHxA. The levels are anticipated to be enforceable standards in the state by late spring of 2020.
Richard DeGrandchamp, a toxicologist at the University of Colorado, who also co-authored a report for the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality (now the Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy) about widespread PFAS contamination in the state, said findings by scientists in the European Union found widespread exposure of PFAS to the general public in the food supply is already high enough that any standard above 0 ppt for PFAS is too high.
"The way toxicologists view safe levels of exposure of any compound is that we look at the total exposure that occurs daily," DeGrandchamp said. "You would be exposed to PFAS in food and in water if you live in a community where drinking water is contaminated. What you need to do is make sure that levels in food and drinking water combined, or the sum, don't exceed the daily allowable level. But what has been going on recently with the development of the safe drinking water levels the state is working on, they aren't looking at other levels of exposure.
"Often what happens when scientists look at contaminants in any environmental medium, like dirt, water or food, they focus just on that medium. So any statement that levels of PFAS in food may not be excessive or unsafe – they aren't taking into account that there are alternate exposures to PFAS."
DeGrandchamp cited a study released in March by the European Food Safety Authority that reviewed the presence of PFOS and PFOA in an attempt to determine what is a safe level of exposure to PFAS for food. He said the study took into account all sources of exposure to PFAS before looking specifically at the food system.
"What they found was that the levels of PFAS in food in the European Union food supply are already exceeding safe daily levels," he said. "They looked at the total amount of PFAS that could be ingested without any toxic effect and found a large portion of the European population was eating food with PFAS that exceeded the daily acceptable amount."
Considering that a majority of PFAS chemicals that have been available were produced in the United States, DeGrandchamp said there's no reason not to believe the United States population isn't ingesting similar amounts of PFAS.
"If we are eating PFAS contaminated with food at levels above what the EU came up with as safe levels, that means anyone living near a contaminated site shouldn't be exposed to any additional PFAS in drinking water," he said. "What that means is that Michigan has embarked on this test of finding a safe level, so if they come up with any level above zero, that would be unsafe for the population."
The study, "Risk to human health related to the presence of perfluorooctane sulfonic acid and perfluorooctanoic acid in food," found tolerable weekly intake of PFOS to be 13 nanograms/kilogram of body weight, with PFOA at six ng/kg. "For both compounds, exposure of a considerable proportion of the population exceeds the proposed total weekly intake," the report stated.
DeGrandchamp said the FDA hasn't conducted analysis as extensive as the EU food regulators, but it's clear from blood testing by the CDC that the United States population has high levels of PFAS in their systems. Meanwhile, he said evidence continues to grow that shows that PFAS exposure is considered a greater risk than previously believed.
"We keep finding these compounds are more toxic than the day before," he said. "Michigan uses a drinking water standard of 70 ppt, and now it's proposed to be down to eight ppt. It could go as low as one ppt, and when you get to that level, you're near a level that analytical laboratories can't identify."
Despite the concern, he said he doesn't expect to see any guidance from the FDA anytime soon as to what safe levels of PFAS exposure are.
According to the FDA, groundwater and soil contaminated by PFAS is typically limited to areas near industrial facilities where PFAS was produced or used. From there, PFAS can occur in plants and animals exposed to PFAS contamination. Prepared foods may also become contaminated if they come into contact with packaging containing PFAS, such as some fast food containers.
FDA testing of dairy food in 2018-2019 looked at samples from two dairy farms near Clovis, New Mexico, with PFAS contamination in the groundwater. That contamination was traced to a nearby Air Force base with contaminated ground water from PFAS-laden firefighting foam. The FDA tested cheese from one farm and milk from another, both which had detectable levels of PFAS. While the cheeses were considered by the FDA to be at levels that didn't raise a health concern, milk samples from one farm were a health concern, and all milk from the farm was discarded.
In 2019, the FDA tested 91 samples of meat, dairy and grain products collected in 2017 as part of a national Total Diet Study. Of those tested, 14 had detectable levels of PFAS, again at levels the FDA said don't pose a health risk.
In 2018, the FDA tested 20 samples of produce from an area in Fayetteville, North Carolina near a PFAS production plant. The analysis showed that 19 samples had detectable levels of PFAS; however, the FDA said levels don't present a human health concern.
In 2016, the FDA tested 42 samples of cranberries from a bog containing water with PFAS contamination. None of those samples had detectable levels of PFAS.
IN 2013, the FDA tested 46 samples of fish and shellfish from 13 species of freshwater and saltwater fish from around the country. Of those, scientists found 11 had detectable levels of PFAS. The FDA said the result were inconclusive.
In 2012, the FDA tested 12 raw milk and 49 retail milk samples from across the country. Results of that testing showed one raw milk sample had PFAS that was traced to biosolids fertilizers applied to the field.
Biosolids are created from the leftover sludge created during the sewage treatment process. It is literally the boiled down and dried out remnants from residential and industrial sewage that gets treated and used for fertilizer. Statewide, about 85,000 tons of the sludge was applied to 18,000 acres of agricultural land in 2016, according to the Michigan Department of Agriculture and Rural Development (MDARD).
Some PFAS contamination in food has been traced to the use of biosolids on farm fields, which is transferred from the sludge to the soil and taken up by the plants, which may be used for human or animal feed.
Kevin Beasey, public health project specialist with MDARD and a member of the Michigan PFAS Action Response Team (MPART) created by an executive order issued by Governor Gretchen Whitmer, said biosolids were the source of PFAS contamination of a corn field in Lapeer.
"The site in Lapeer is the highest level of PFAS we have found on a farm field," Beasey said. "They have since taken it out of production. That was a city-owned facility."
The state's MPART traced the source of the PFAS contamination to Lapeer Plating and Plastics, a decorative chrome plating facility that pretreats and discharges wastewater into the city's sanitary sewer system for treatment at the Lapeer Wastewater Treatment Plant. While the facility, which specifically stopped using PFOS in 2013, makes up about 4.4 percent of the total influent to the city's treatment facility.
Biosolids produced at the wastewater treatment plant were subsequently applied to a farm field owned by the city and leased to an area farmer. Soil samples at the field, which had been used to grow corn, found PFOS samples ranging from 20 ppt to 17,000 ppt, and PFOA samples between 110 and 1,100 ppt.
Lapeer City Manager Dale Kerbyson said biosolids at the plant must now be disposed at a landfill that is authorized to receive hazardous materials. He said the plating facility has conducted remediation activities and since lowered the amount of PFAS entering the city's wastewater. However, the city is still unable to apply biosolids to any fields, which had led to a buildup of sludge being stored at the plant for a time.
"We applied to several fields over the years, but the one we owned next to our plant was almost every year," Kerbyson said. "That was contaminated to a much higher level ... It had been growing corn for a number of years. Michigan State University came over and collected samples of the corn to see how much PFAS was taken up, if any. We took the field out of lease and production.
"We are fortunate because the farmer that was leasing confirmed to the DEQ and us that it was only used for ethanol production. We are going to plant a tree farm. We also are lucky that the contamination on this parcel is really landlocked, and there's a layer of clay below it, so it's not migrating or moving. We have tested all around the property to see if PFAS has moved off property, and it's not. It appears to be encapsulated in the property, and we think a tree farm is the best answer. We've been informed that trees take up PFAS the fastest."
Kerbyson said the city is in the process of having the existing biosolids at the plant site removed to an authorized facility. The city also is in the process of cleaning equipment to ensure any PFAS contamination is removed. "We were in an emergency scenario because we couldn't get the sludge hauled and we were filling up," he said.
Kerbyson said the city has invested about $2.3 million in the cleanup of the facility and field.
"Not a chance," he said about his expectation of financial assistance from the state or federal government. "They are more focused on drinking water than surface water."
Beasey, with the MDARD and MPART, said the state's Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy (DEGLE) is the lead agency in the state on PFAS issues, as the thrust of investigations is to locate PFAS contamination that is impacting drinking water. However, MDARD works with the FDA and USDA to identify potential contamination in the food system.
"The majority of work is around water. They can find a little in food, but where people are really at risk, it is with water," Beasey said. "If we have a question, we have an arrangement with the USDA and FDA. They will run numbers to see if there is a health risk."
By tracking the locations in the state where PFAS has impacted water, the MDARD can look for potential agricultural operations that may be effected.
"We are adding new sites every few weeks or so," he said. "If they are finding stuff, that's when we start looking for any agricultural impacts."
Laura Campbell, manager of Michigan Farm Bureau's Ag Ecology Department, said Michigan has stepped up and taken an aggressive and proactive approach to testing. "The main focus has been on drinking water, as that is the main exposure pathway, but they have been doing some testing for crop tissues and farm fields," she said.
Campbell agreed the state is lacking guidance from federal regulators.
"What we are really lacking is any kind of gesture or leadership from the FDA or USDA," she said. "It's one thing to test a very straight-forward drinking water source and say this is a level of contamination. Testing PFAS is difficult because there are so many different compounds. On top of that, if you're testing in food or soil, it's that much more difficult. We need them to step up and set up standards and protocols."
Campbell said Farm Bureau members are in favor of testing dairy and livestock.
"Nobody in the state is really panicking, and I credit the state agencies for that. They have been very transparent and posting all the results of their studies. They are getting in touch with farmers, so they don't feel there is a need to panic. They are more in a 'wait-and-see' mode."
While concerns about PFAS in food is considered an emerging concern, documents uncovered by attorney Rob Bilott, who represented thousands of clients in a suit against 3M, reveal that the company was aware of PFAS in foods throughout the country. According to the documents, the tests were commissioned by 3M, which in 2018 paid $850 million to settle a lawsuit brought against it by the state of Minnesota.
The tests, conducted in 2001, show that certain PFAS in foods was found in six different cities in the United States. Those results, which include the level of contamination, type of PFAS, food and location, include:14,700 ppt PFOA in bread (Cleveland, TN); 2,350 ppt PFOA in apples (Decatur, AL); 1,130 PFOA in apples (Pensacola, FL); 1,090 ppt PFOA in ground beef (Port St. Lucie, FL); 852 ppt PFOS in milk (Pensacola, FL); 693 ppt PFOS in milk (Columbus, GA); 587 ppt PFOS in ground beef (Mobile, AL); 573 ppt PFOA in green beens (Mobile AL); 524 ppt PFOA in bread (Pensacola FL); 504 ppt, PFOA in ground beef (Port St. Lucie, FL).
While PFAS contamination has been in the state and national spotlight as of late, food testing for pesticides has shown glyphosate to be found in a multitude of cereals and snacks.
The main use of glyphosate is on genetically modified corn and soybean that is "Roundup ready," or engineered to be resistant to the herbicide. However, glyphosate is often sprayed on oats before harvest as a drying agent, or desiccant. As such, it kills the crop and dries it out so it may be harvested sooner.
Olga Naidenko, vice president of science investigations for the Environmental Working Group, said the organization recognizes the worldwide dependence on herbicides like glyphosate.
"We recognize that in today's world there is so much connection to pesticides, so to stop use immediately isn't possible," she said. "Glyphosate is used in various contexts, including being spayed on crops, like wheat and oats, before harvest. That results in really high levels of pesticide exposure, so that is what we are focused on."
In August of 2018, the EWG released findings of dozens of foods contaminated with glyphosate. In each of the tests, products were sampled three times. The results showed even organic foods that weren't treated with glyphosate at harvest time were contaminated from drifting residues.
Granola products tested and the results in (parts per billion or non-detectable levels/ND) included: Nature’s Path Organic Honey Almond granola (ND, ND); Back to Nature Classic Granola (620 ppb, 170 ppb); Quaker Simply Granola Oats, Honey Raisins & Almonds (430 ppb, 400 ppb); Back to Nature Banana Walnut Granola Clusters (30 ppb, 30 ppb, 340 ppb); Nature Valley Granola Protein Oats ’n Honey (220 ppb, 170 ppb); KIND Vanilla, Blueberry Clusters with Flax Seeds (50 ppb, 60 ppb).
Instant oats tested included Giant Instant Oatmeal, original flavor (760 ppb); Simple Truth Organic Instant Oatmeal (ND, ND); Quaker Dinosaur Eggs, Brown Sugar, Instant Oatmeal (620 ppb, 780 ppb); Great Value Original Instant Oatmeal (450 ppb); Umpqua Oats, Maple Pecan (220 ppb, 220 ppb); Market Pantry Instant Oatmeal, Strawberries & Cream (120 ppb, 520 ppb).
Oat breakfast cereal included Kashi Heart to Heart Organic Honey Toasted (ND, ND); Cheerios Toasted Whole Grain Oat (490 ppb, 470 ppb, 530 ppb); Lucky Charms [marshmallows removed] (400 ppb, 230 ppb); Barbara’s Multigrain Spoonfuls (340 ppb, 300 ppb); Kellogg’s Cracklin’ Oat Bran (250 ppb, 120 ppb).
Snack bars tested included Cascadian Farm Organic Harvest Berry, granola bar (ND, ND); KIND Oats & Honey with Toasted Coconut (ND, 120 ppb); Nature Valley Crunchy Granola Bars, Oats ’n Honey (340 ppb, 120 ppb); Quaker Chewy Chocolate Chip granola bar (120 ppb, 160 ppb); Kellogg’s Nutrigrain Soft Baked Breakfast Bars, Strawberry (30 ppb, 80 ppb).
Whole oats tested included 365 Organic Old-Fashioned Rolled Oats (ND, ND); Quaker Steel Cut Oats (530 ppb, 290 ppb); Quaker Old Fashioned Oats (390 ppb, 1,100 ppb, 1,300 ppb); Bob’s Red Mill Steel Cut Oats (300 ppb, ND); Nature’s Path Organic Old Fashioned Organic Oats (30 ppb, 20 ppb); Whole Foods Bulk Bin Conventional Rolled Oats (10 ppb, 40 ppb) Bob’s Red Mill Organic Old Fashioned Rolled Oats (ND, 10 ppb, 20 ppb).
Additional test results released by the EWG in June of 2019 show glyphosate contamination isn't limited to oat products. The two highest levels of glyphosate found in those tests were in Honey Nut Cheerios Medley Crunch (883 ppb) and regular Cheerios (729 ppb). Additional test results included breakfast cereals: Honey Nut Cheerios (147 ppb); Cheerios Toasted Whole Grain Oat Cereal (729 ppb); Chocolate Peanut Butter Cheerios (400 ppb); Cheerios Oat Crunch Cinnamon (283 ppb); Honey Nut Cheerios Medley Crunch (833 ppb); Multi Grain Cheerios (216 ppb); Nature Valley Baked Oat Bites (389 ppb).
Granola: Nature Valley Granola Peanut Butter Creamy & Crunchy (198 ppb); Nature Valley Granola Protein Oats n Dark Chocolate (261 ppb).
Snack or Snack bars: Nature Valley Fruit & Nut Chewy Trail Mix Granola Bars, Dark Chocolate & Nut (76 ppb); Nature Valley Fruit and Nut Chewy Trail Mix Granola Bars, Dark Chocolate Cherry (275 ppb); Nature Valley Sweet & Salty Nut granola bars, cashew (158 ppb) Nature Valley Crunchy granola bars (oats and honey) (320 ppb); Nature Valley Crunchy granola bars, peanut butter (312 ppb); Nature Valley Crunchy Granola Bars, Maple Brown Sugar (566 ppb); Nature Valley Soft-baked Oatmeal Squares, blueberry (206 ppb); Nature Valley Soft-Baked Oatmeal Squares, Cinnamon Brown Sugar (124 ppb); Nature Valley Granola Cups, Almond Butter (529 ppb); Nature Valley Granola Cups, Peanut Butter Chocolate (297 ppb); Nature Valley Biscuits with Almond Butter (194 ppb); Fiber One Oatmeal Raisin soft-baked cookies (204 ppb).
Naidenko said levels of glyphosate could vary from location to location and individual box of the same product, as grains are shipped all over the world and mixed together, all which have been harvested at different times and locations.
The Environmental Working Group in March announced a number of food manufacturers and retailers joined its petition to limit glyphosate residues allowed on oats and prohibit the pesticides use as a pre-harvest drying agent. Those companies include Amy's Kitchen; Clif Bar & Company; Earth's Best Organic; GrandyOats; INFRA; KIND Healthy Snacks; Lundberg Family Farms; Organic Valley; Patagonia Provisions; PCC Community Markets; MegaFood; Ben & Jerry's; Stonyfield Organic; MOM's Organic Market; Nature's Path; One Degree Organic Foods; National Co+op Grocers; and Happy Family Organics.
Michigan-based Kellogg Company declined to comment for this story.
"This is a big change because for a long time, they simply said they stand by their products, but the reality is that people don't buy into that," Naidenko said. "It's not like the prices of oats have dropped, so consumers aren't seeing benefits (from glyphosate use).”
While consumers may be able to limit their exposure to glyphosate or other pesticides by selecting organic products, PFAS exposure can be a bit trickier, as it could be nearly anywhere in the food system. However, Tasha Stoiber, senior scientist with EWG said there are some practices that may help to avoid exposure.
"People assume there is federal testing for these, but there really isn't," Stoiber said. "That's where a lot of additional testing was borne out of. And the first time everyone was really surprised that we tested and found it in a lot of places."
For PFAS especially, Stoiber advised to avoid products that are known to transfer substances to food, such as fast food packaging.
"The best thing you can do is avoid as much take out food and fast food as possible because we know its so pervasive in those packaging items," she said. "Some states are starting to take action with those. Maine has passed regulations, and Washington, as well. The city of San Francisco has banned it, but that has to do with requirements for food packaging to be composted, since PFAS is in compostable items. That takes effect in 2020."
Stoiber said molded, fibrous plates and bowls used at some carryout restaurants contain PFAS. A study published in 2017 found PFAS in more than half of fast food packaging tested in 2014 and 2015. That study included 407 samples of paper and paperboard food wrappers and related food packaging from fast food restaurants in the United States. Sample were collected from restaurants in Washington, Massachusetts, Michigan, California, and Washington D.C., from 27 large fast food chains.
The study found about 46 percent of food contact papers contained at least one PFAS. Of those, about 38 percent were sandwich/burger wrappers and 57 percent were used for Tex-Mex or dessert/bread wrappers. PFOA was the most commonly found PFAS.
As awareness of PFAS and pesticide contamination grows, advocates are hopeful that the federal government and industry will respond.
"People in the general public are becoming hyper aware of what is in their food and what is allowable in their food," said Zimnicki, with the non-profit Michigan Environmental Council. "When you see reports about pesticides or other chemicals in your food, that worries people. There are allowable limits and caps on those trace chemicals that are found on food, but its indicative to the general public right now. Seeing that's where people are focusing attention, it's causing folks in the industry to look at long-term management plans to limit exposure to people."