May 02, 2023

How to avoid forever chemicals in food, drinking water

Across the country, states are banning forever chemicals from consumer products, and some companies are promising to phase out use of the compounds.

But what are we supposed to do in the meantime?

"Forever chemicals," or PFAS, which stands for per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, are known for their persistent ability to remain in nature — and the body — for years. Certain PFAS have been associated with serious health effects, including infertility, high blood pressure and some cancers, according to the Food and Drug Administration.

Cindy Luppi, the national field director for Clean Water Action, said "it's very hard" for people to avoid products with PFAS.

"For the average consumer, there's no way to avoid it," said Graham Peaslee, a physics professor at the University of Notre Dame. "But, you can do some smart things."

We spoke to PFAS experts about the steps you can take to minimize exposure from the foods you eat. Here's their advice.

States take matters into their own hands to ban ‘forever chemicals’

Grease-resistant fast-food packaging that keeps oil and meat juices from spilling on your clothes often also contain oil-resistant PFAS. This includes the paper wrappers, boxes and other containers used to serve burgers, fries and salads from fast-food chains.

Your risk of exposure to PFAS depends on the "contact time" — the time the food has spent inside of that plastic bag or paper wrapper, said Jamie DeWitt, professor of pharmacology and toxicology at East Carolina University.

Last year, Consumer Reports tested more than 100 food packages and reported higher levels of PFAS in wraps, trays and bags from Burger King, McDonald's, Chick-fil-A and Cava, among others.

The properties that make PFAS such useful compounds for oil-resistant fast-food wrappers (and rain coats) are the same reason these chemicals can then stay in the body.

"These chemicals are unique because of their ability to cause harm at such low levels," said David Andrews, senior scientist at the Environmental Working Group, adding that the chemicals can prove to be a health concern at "parts per trillion" in drinking water. "They actually stick to our blood, and they tend to accumulate in our bodies."

In recent years, a number of major companies, including McDonald's and Burger King, have stated they’re planning to reduce or phase out the use of packaging with forever chemicals.

Consumers can be frustrated because there's no simple way to test products for PFAS, and the chemicals aren't included on ingredient lists. Switching from packaged to fresh foods that don't spend as much time on the shelf can reduce your risk of exposure.

"In general, food packaging is a source of contamination," said Melanie Benesh, vice president of government affairs at the Environmental Working Group. "The fewer packaged foods that you are eating, the less likely you may be to be exposed."

Some packaged foods are potentially exposed to PFAS in materials longer than others. Boxes of cake mix often have the highest concentrations of PFAS because the mix has been sitting in the packaging "for a relatively long period of time," DeWitt said.

Some experts discourage frequent consumption of prepackaged microwave popcorn because the kernels are often sitting in that package of oil and other flavoring for an extended period of time.

Keith Vorst, an associate professor and the director of the Polymer and Food Protection Consortium at Iowa State University, said that when we heat up food in paper linings or plastic containers there's a risk that some PFAS potentially coating the packaging can turn into a vapor and contaminate what we eat.

But, "we don't know" what the risk of exposure is, Vorst said. "That is one area that we need to do some work in."

It's also not clear how much of our exposure to PFAS comes directly from the food supply. The FDA tested for 30 different types of PFAS in samples of 718 foods. It found 701 of the samples to be free of PFAS. Experts say the study was too limited in scope to draw broad conclusions because there are thousands of PFAS in use.

The testing of the food supply needs to be comprehensive, Andrews said.

Nonstick pots and pans are often coated in a material with PFAS. Peaslee said he has switched to ceramic cookware, and his eggs "are no worse than they used to be."

"Be a little wary of things that are marketed as nonstick or stain resistant or water resistant," Benesh said.

Cooking with stainless steel or cast-iron pans isn't just about protecting yourself from these forever chemicals, DeWitt said. Your potential exposure from a nonstick pan may not be significant, but that doesn't consider what it took to create the pan.

"The production of that pan is going to negatively impact other people who are bearing the brunt of the pollution that is produced when that nonstick coating is manufactured and applied," DeWitt said.

Experts recommend storing leftovers and other food in glass containers, not plastic, in the fridge.

"Move away from plastics wherever possible," Luppi said. "That’ll be one relatively easy and cost-effective thing to do."

Check the results of water testing where you live and consider adding a water filtration system at home. Carbon filters on faucets or in water pitchers can reduce the levels of PFAS, if the filters are replaced regularly, Andrews said. Reverse osmosis systems installed under sink faucets "can typically eliminate the PFAS contamination."

Andrews said these systems "typically cost a couple hundred dollars but can be more effective at removing PFAS."

Your water supplier should provide water testing results. In March, the Environmental Protection Agency proposed drinking-water standards that will require water utilities to reduce levels of PFAS contamination.

The low-density plastic used for bottled water is not considered a potential source of PFAS contamination, Peaslee said. Unless a manufacturer makes a specific safety claim about PFAS, there's no way for a consumer to know if the bottled water itself has been tested. "Bottled water is a lot safer than drinking a contaminated well with PFAS in it," Peaslee said.

New tech could one day scrub ‘forever chemicals’ from your tap water

PFAS have been widely detected in freshwater fish. Last year, the FDA conducted a "targeted seafood survey" and detected PFAS in 74 percent of the seafood tested, including in clams, cod, crab, pollock, salmon, shrimp, tilapia and tuna.

"The data on PFAS in seafood is still very limited," the FDA wrote in a report on PFAS in foods. "However, our testing indicates that seafood may be at higher risk for environmental PFAS contamination compared with other types of foods."

Locally caught fish is more likely to have higher PFAS levels than farm-raised fish, experts say. Check statewide advisories before eating a recreationally caught fish. The FDA says people should continue to eat a "variety of healthy foods, including seafood." The agency found the levels of PFAS detected in most of the seafood products tested did not appear to pose a "human health concern."

"Be cognizant of fish advisories," DeWitt said. "Consume fish because it's healthy for you. But, don't eat fish for every meal every day."

Do you have a question about healthy eating? Email [email protected] and we may answer your question in a future column.

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