A growing chorus of environmental groups and public health experts are slamming the Trump administration for its milquetoast response to the widespread problem of per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS), a family of toxic “forever chemicals” that are linked to serious diseases and have contaminated food products and drinking water across the country.
Earlier this week, environmental groups released photos of previously unreleased research by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) showing the presence of 16 PFAS chemicals in food products sampled from eight mid-Atlantic states, including seafood, meat, dairy products, various vegetables and pre-packaged chocolate cake. Exposure to PFAS chemicals is associated with a variety of health problems, including cancer, changes in cholesterol levels, damage to the immune system, hormone disruption, congenital disabilities, and liver and kidney disease, according to the Environmental Working Group.
While the FDA said in a statement this week that identifying levels and human health effects from dietary PFAS exposure is an “emerging area of science” and pledged to continue research and testing, public health watchdogs said the previously unreleased FDA findings are evidence that the government must take swift action to limit human exposure to the dangerous chemicals immediately.
So far, they said, the Trump administration’s response to the PFAS crisis, which includes an “action plan” currently proposed by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), has not gone far enough to protect public health. The plan only focuses two chemicals in the PFAS family, which includes thousands of compounds, and the agency has not moved swiftly enough to propose new regulations that will keep PFAS chemicals out of food and drinking water while holding the companies that use and make them accountable.
“To say that this EPA plan is abysmal would be too kind,” said Kyla Bennett, the science policy director at Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER), a group which represents federal environmental scientists and other experts, and a former attorney and scientist formerly with EPA, in a statement on Thursday. “Under its current leadership, EPA appears incapable of fulfilling its mission of protecting the public from emerging health threats.”
PFAS chemicals have contaminated drinking water in communities across the country, notably near industrial facilities that produce or use the chemicals as well as U.S. Air Force bases, where PFAS has long been used in a firefighting foam applied to runways. Public health experts said the FDA data is further evidence that food is another major site of PFAS exposure for consumers, as scientists have long suspected.
David Andrews, a toxicologist and senior scientist at EWG, said a multitude of studies have shown that PFAS can be a danger to human health even in small concentrations, and the chemicals are persistent – they do not break down in the environment. Trace amounts can now be found in nearly everyone’s body in the United States.
“It’s the potent toxicity of these PFAS chemicals that make it a big deal when they are detected in food and drinking water,” Andrews told reporters on Thursday. “The results from the FDA clearly indicate that some food products are more contaminated than others, and ultimately more testing needs to be [done to] better understand contamination of our food supply and identify where these high sources of exposure are coming from, and take action to clean up our food.”
There are thousands of chemicals in the PFAS class that have been used in a variety of ways for decades. While the FDA has banned some PFAS chemicals from food packaging, others are still allowed. Andrews and other experts said that when a chemical is prohibited or controlled by the government, companies can use a “loophole” in federal law to use other PFAS chemicals in the same family in food packaging without alerting the FDA, as long as their own scientists determine that the chemicals are safe.
Other PFAS chemicals, such as the PFOS, a chemical formerly used to make Teflon for non-stick pans and currently under a federal health advisory, are persistent in the environment and can enter the food supply in a variety of ways. These include water contamination as well as sewer sludge, millions of pounds of which are applied to farm fields as a soil enhancer and fertilizer.
About half the meat and seafood products tested by the FDA came up positive for PFOS. In North Carolina, leafy green vegetables gathered from a river contaminated by a PFAS manufacturer showed high levels of contamination in either their roots or leaves and fruit, depending on the chemical makeup of the PFAS compound, according to the FDA. In New Mexico, products from a dairy farm near a contaminated Air Force base showed elevated levels on PFAS.
Jamie C. DeWitt, a pharmacology and toxicology professor at Eastern Carolina State University, said studies of people who became ill living near sites of major industrial PFAS contamination clearly show that diseases resulting from exposure can be life threatening, and scientists are currently working to determine what levels of exposure to different PFAS compounds carry risks of cancer and other diseases.
“It’s time to take action to restrict people’s exposure so that risk can be reduced,” Dewitt told reporters on Thursday.
Scott Faber, EWG’s vice president of governmental affairs, said there are a number of bipartisan initiatives to address PFAS contamination in Congress, because the problem is widespread and impacts every congressional district across the U.S.
“Frankly I have never seen a time when there has been such a bipartisan commitment to addressing such an environmental challenge,” Faber said.
Faber said there is a sharp contrast between Congress and the EPA, where regulators working for Trump appointees have yet to take advantage of their authority under federal law to detect, contain and clean up PFAS contamination. No deadlines have been set to test for PFAS chemicals in sewer sludge added to farm fields, and the EPA has not moved to place tough limits on PFAS releases into the environment. In fact, the EPA does not list PFAS as “hazardous” or and doesn’t include it in a federal registry for toxic chemical releases.
“No administration has employed more chemical industry lobbyists than the Trump administration, so it should not be surprising that the EPA has failed to take even one step toward addressing the PFAS crisis,” Faber said.
The EPA’s draft “action plan” only covers the two PFAS chemicals under a public health advisory — PFOS and PFOA. There are 4,000 chemicals in the PFAS family that have yet to be closely studied for health impacts. While the EPA has issued an advisory about PFOS and PFOA, the amount of other PFAS chemicals used in food packaging, non-stick cookware and industrial treatments has skyrocketed, according to PEER. Also, the current draft plan only covers PFAS contamination in groundwater, but lakes, rivers and reservoirs supply drinking water for a majority of the U.S. population. The proposed protective standards for PFAS cleanup are not tough enough, PEER argues, and chemical companies that are responsible for the problem are let off the hook.
PEER is planning a series of legal actions designed to fill “critical gaps” in the EPA action plan.
“Significantly, EPA has no handle on sharply growing PFAS manufacture, importation, storage, and disposal,” PEER Executive Director Tim Whitehouse said in a statement on Thursday. “The PFAS crisis is going to get much worse unless there are major course corrections far beyond EPA’s terribly timid plan.”