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‘Forever chemicals’ are now in half of your fruit and vegetables. This is what that means

It was recently reported that PFAS (Per- and PolyfluoroAlkyl Substances), also known as ‘forever chemicals’, were found in more than half of fruit and vegetable samples tested in the UK. This has led to calls to ban pesticides containing these chemicals. But what risk does eating fruits and vegetables containing PFAS actually pose to our health?

What exactly are ‘forever chemicals’?

PFAS are not just one thing. It is a large group of more than 10,000 chemicals with very strong carbon-fluorine bonds. Examples include perfluorooctane sulfonate (PFOS), perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA), and perfluorohexane sulfonate (PFHxS).

They are used to make products such as fabrics, food packaging, non-stick cooking surfaces and pesticides that need stability to withstand heat, oil and water. But this stability also means that the chemicals are less biodegradable and can therefore persist in the environment and in humans for a long time.


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How dangerous are ‘forever chemicals’ for people?

Research is being conducted into the health effects of PFAS. Observational evidence and data from animal studies suggest associations between higher exposure to certain specific PFAS and certain health effects, such as increased cholesterol levels, thyroid and liver dysfunction, adverse pregnancy outcomes, and an increased risk of some cancers.

For this reason, many governments have imposed restrictions on the use of PFAS. Some are completely banned and others have maximum allowable limits for food and drinking water. Limits have been set instead of bans because the risks are not absolute or black and white.

The dose, frequency, route and duration of exposure, as well as numerous factors such as health, genetics and other lifestyle habits, determine the extent of risk for each individual.

Evidence of damage usually comes from very high doses from exposure to contaminated sites. Some animal studies use very high doses, and animal research does not always correlate with human health effects due to differences between species.

The data also does not apply to all PFAS. Some, while not easily broken down, are considered chemically inert because the molecules have no chemically active groups.

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How many ‘forever chemicals’ are in our food?

The report found that PFAS were present in more than half of all food samples tested in Britain. This sounds alarming, but most (98.8 percent) were well below the maximum residue levels (MRL) legally allowed in food.

These levels are established and continually reviewed to ensure that exposure does not reach risky levels, even for those who eat a variety of foods that may contain residues.

There are calls from some quarters to ban PFAS-containing pesticides, but they are unlikely to be completely eliminated from the food supply because they have multiple uses. It is important to note that because PFAS are a very wide range of chemicals, not all behave the same way when it comes to health.

How do I reduce my risk?

PFAS are also present in cooking products and food packaging, so cutting out fruits and vegetables for fear of PFAS is unlikely to provide a net health benefit, as these foods contain several essential nutrients and health-promoting bioactive compounds.

There is even evidence that high-fiber and high-folate diets, both found in fruits, vegetables and grains, reduce the absorption and accumulation of PFAS in our bodies.

Thoroughly washing or peeling fresh produce can help remove pesticides on the surface. Using running water is recommended to rinse away contaminants, but there is no evidence that using detergents provides additional benefits.

This will not always reduce levels to zero as PFAS may have been absorbed into the products from soil or water and repel water, but as dose matters when it comes to risk, elimination is not the necessary goal anyway.

It also helps to eat a varied diet. Variety is not just about ensuring we get a diversity of nutrients in our diets, it is also about spreading the risks. If you eat the same fruits and vegetables over and over again, you may increase your total exposure in the event of an infection, for example.

Are organic fruits and vegetables lower in PFAS?

Organic farming avoids the use of man-made pesticides, which reduces the chance of residues being discovered. However, this does not necessarily mean they are PFAS-free. PFAS have also been detected in organic foods by incorporation from soil and water.

Eating locally and seasonally whenever possible can also reduce the need for pesticides. You choose food that grows well under local conditions.

Do we have to worry?

The world, and our food chains in particular, are full of risks that are only dangerous in certain quantities and in specific situations. But that doesn’t mean all exposure is a cause for panic. For example, the microbes responsible for food poisoning cannot be completely eliminated and most people will survive an encounter.

It is wise to continue studying PFAS and other chemicals that pose potential risks to human health. But it’s also important to continue exploring other options for growing the vast quantities of food needed to feed the world efficiently and economically.

Ultimately, care must be taken not to incite unnecessary fear or make broad generalizations, as this can also harm us in making our food choices.

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