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What Are ‘Forever Chemicals’ and How Are They Getting in Your Food?

Health + Wellness

fotofrog / E+ / Getty Images

By Gigen Mammoser

A recent analysis by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) found chemical contamination of PFAS (Per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances) at multiple levels of the U.S. food supply chain.


However, the agency maintains that their findings don't represent a likely health concern for consumers.

What Are PFAS and Why Are They Used?

PFAS are a widely used class of nearly 5,000 synthetic chemicals that have been used in manufacturing since the 1940s. They're oil-, water-, and heat-resistant, making them profoundly useful and popular in all manner of products.

These are the chemicals that make carpets stain resistant and fast food packaging able to repel grease and water.

They're also used in fire-fighting foams and what gives nonstick cookware, well, it's non-stickiness.

And dental floss contains them, too.

They're also known as "forever chemicals," because the molecular bonds that form them can take thousands of years to degrade, meaning that they accumulate both in the environment and in our bodies.

So, when images of an FDA presentation came to light last week, they appeared to confirm what many doctors and scientists have thought for some time.

PFAS Are Everywhere, Even in Food

FDA scientists sampled a wide variety of food sources across the country, including some taken directly from geographic areas known to have PFAS contamination.

The milk at a dairy farm in New Mexico was deemed to be a potential human health hazard after being contaminated by PFAS in groundwater.

Leafy green vegetables like lettuce, kale, and cabbage grown downstream from a PFAS production plant in North Carolina and sold at a local farmers were found to contain the chemicals as well, but at low levels.

The FDA did not deem them a human health concern.

Additionally, PFAS were found in 14 out of 91 samples of meat, dairy, and grain samples, including off-the-shelf chocolate cake.

Reason for Concern?

Despite what the findings seem to imply — that PFAS are widespread throughout the U.S. food-supply chain at various levels from production to packaging — the FDA's consensus is optimistic.

"Our findings did not detect PFAS in the vast majority of the foods tested. In addition, based on the best available current science, the FDA does not 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 this limited sampling," the FDA said in a statement released today.Trusted Source

However, those sentiments don't appear to be shared by other experts in the field of public health.

"It's certainly not a surprise in the sense that it's long been known that the general population is exposed to these chemicals. Essentially everyone in the U.S. has these chemicals in their bodies. We've known that for a long time," said Dr. Ken Spaeth, chief of occupational and environmental medicine at Northwell Health in New York.

"My concern is that these particular FDA researchers concluded that these were safe levels, that there were no hazards posed by these levels, and I would take issue with that," Dr. Spaeth said.

He argues that looking at individual PFAS levels in chocolate cake and cabbages loses sight of the "big picture" of PFAS, which is about cumulative, lifetime exposure.

In other words, it's about the PFAS levels that are in everything from the water we drink to the furniture in our house rather than just what's found in that box of chocolate cake on store shelves.

How PFAS Can Affect Health

PFAS are recognized as having the potential to cause a host of serious health problems, including cancers, liver and kidney problems, reproductive harm, high blood pressure, and thyroid issues.

The strongest evidence of such adverse health effects comes from an epidemiological study known as the C8 Health Project, which took place from the 1950s until 2002 in areas of known water contamination in West Virginia and Ohio.

What still remains unclear is at what level of lifetime exposure do these health effects manifest.

There are currently no federally-regulated safety levels for PFAS by the FDA or other federal agencies.

In 2016, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) issued a health advisory for certain PFAS, which set a lifetime exposure limit for drinking water at 70 parts per trillion.

However, health advisories are non-binding, non-enforceable limits that are instead meant to inform the public and health officials.

"EPA does not anticipate a person to experience negative health effects if they drink water with levels of PFOA or PFAS (or both combined) at or below 70 ppt (parts per trillion) every day over their entire lifetime. The health advisories are based on estimated exposure from drinking water and household use of drinking water during food preparation (e.g., cooking or to prepare coffee, tea, or soup)," an EPA spokesperson told Healthline in an email.

The spokesperson said that the limit set by the health advisory isn't appropriate to identify the potential exposure risk of other products, including food sources like fish, meat, and dairy.

Wendy Heiger-Bernays, PhD, a molecular toxicologist in the Department of Environmental Health at the Boston University School of Public Health, told Healthline that the FDA's findings provide further proof that federal regulations need to be established across one or more agencies.

"I think they need to be established very quickly. The evidence is sufficient to set limits," she said.

Dr. Heiger-Bernays is keenly aware of the potential danger of PFAS in the environment and our bodies because of her understanding of the special bonds that make them "forever chemicals."

"When you have these two atoms, carbons and fluorines, and they bind together molecularly, it creates a molecule that cannot be broken down by enzymes in the body, by sunlight, by microorganisms. They just can't be broken down," she said. "They are here forever."

Some Good News

Blood levels of certain PFAS have actually declined over the past two decades.

In 2006, the EPA launched the PFOA Stewardship Program alongside the eight major companies of the PFAS industry including 3M and DuPont, to help phase out certain PFAS from manufacturing.

But without any real regulation at the federal level, there's little that individuals can do to mitigate their own exposure to PFAS because of how widespread they are throughout commercial and consumer goods.

"It would require multiple agencies since no one arena is probably sufficient to ensure that exposures are adequately reduced. It would take a coordinated effort, which means there has to be political and regulatory focus for this to happen," Spaeth said. "There doesn't seem to be a critical mass of political will to get this done."

Reposted with permission from our media associate Healthline.

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Ola Elvestrun, Norway's environment minister, announced Thursday that it is freezing its contributions to the Amazon Fund, and will no longer be transferring €300 million ($33.2 million) to Brazil. In a press release, the Norwegian embassy in Brazil stated:

Given the present circumstances, Norway does not have either the legal or the technical basis for making its annual contribution to the Amazon Fund.

Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro reacted with sarcasm to Norway's decision, which had been widely expected. After an official event, he commented: "Isn't Norway the country that kills whales at the North Pole? Doesn't it also produce oil? It has no basis for telling us what to do. It should give the money to Angela Merkel [the German Chancellor] to reforest Germany."

According to its website, the Amazon Fund is a "REDD+ mechanism created to raise donations for non-reimbursable investments in efforts to prevent, monitor and combat deforestation, as well as to promote the preservation and sustainable use in the Brazilian Amazon." The bulk of funding comes from Norway and Germany.

The annual transfer of funds from developed world donors to the Amazon Fund depends on a report from the Fund's technical committee. This committee meets after the National Institute of Space Research, which gathers official Amazon deforestation data, publishes its annual report with the definitive figures for deforestation in the previous year.

But this year the Amazon Fund's technical committee, along with its steering committee, COFA, were abolished by the Bolsonaro government on 11 April as part of a sweeping move to dissolve some 600 bodies, most of which had NGO involvement. The Bolsonaro government views NGO work in Brazil as a conspiracy to undermine Brazil's sovereignty.

The Brazilian government then demanded far-reaching changes in the way the fund is managed, as documented in a previous article. As a result, the Amazon Fund's technical committee has been unable to meet; Norway says it therefore cannot continue making donations without a favorable report from the committee.

Archer Daniels Midland soy silos in Mato Grosso along the BR-163 highway, where Amazon rainforest has largely been replaced by soy destined for the EU, UK, China and other international markets.

Thaís Borges.

An Uncertain Future

The Amazon Fund was announced during the 2007 United Nations Climate Change Conference in Bali, during a period when environmentalists were alarmed at the rocketing rate of deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon. It was created as a way of encouraging Brazil to continue bringing down the rate of forest conversion to pastures and croplands.

Government agencies, such as IBAMA, Brazil's environmental agency, and NGOs shared Amazon Fund donations. IBAMA used the money primarily to enforce deforestation laws, while the NGOs oversaw projects to support sustainable communities and livelihoods in the Amazon.

There has been some controversy as to whether the Fund has actually achieved its goals: in the three years before the deal, the rate of deforestation fell dramatically but, after money from the Fund started pouring into the Amazon, the rate remained fairly stationary until 2014, when it began to rise once again. But, in general, the international donors have been pleased with the Fund's performance, and until the Bolsonaro government came to office, the program was expected to continue indefinitely.

Norway has been the main donor (94 percent) to the Amazon Fund, followed by Germany (5 percent), and Brazil's state-owned oil company, Petrobrás (1 percent). Over the past 11 years, the Norwegians have made, by far, the biggest contribution: R$3.2 billion ($855 million) out of the total of R$3.4 billion ($903 million).

Up till now the Fund has approved 103 projects, with the dispersal of R$1.8 billion ($478 million). These projects will not be affected by Norway's funding freeze because the donors have already provided the funding and the Brazilian Development Bank is contractually obliged to disburse the money until the end of the projects. But there are another 54 projects, currently being analyzed, whose future is far less secure.

One of the projects left stranded by the dissolution of the Fund's committees is Projeto Frutificar, which should be a three-year project, with a budget of R$29 million ($7.3 million), for the production of açai and cacao by 1,000 small-scale farmers in the states of Amapá and Pará. The project was drawn up by the Brazilian NGO IPAM (Institute of Environmental research in Amazonia).

Paulo Moutinho, an IPAM researcher, told Globo newspaper: "Our program was ready to go when the [Brazilian] government asked for changes in the Fund. It's now stuck in the BNDES. Without funding from Norway, we don't know what will happen to it."

Norway is not the only European nation to be reconsidering the way it funds environmental projects in Brazil. Germany has many environmental projects in the Latin American country, apart from its small contribution to the Amazon Fund, and is deeply concerned about the way the rate of deforestation has been soaring this year.

The German environment ministry told Mongabay that its minister, Svenja Schulze, had decided to put financial support for forest and biodiversity projects in Brazil on hold, with €35 million ($39 million) for various projects now frozen.

The ministry explained why: "The Brazilian government's policy in the Amazon raises doubts whether a consistent reduction in deforestation rates is still being pursued. Only when clarity is restored, can project collaboration be continued."

Bauxite mines in Paragominas, Brazil. The Bolsonaro administration is urging new laws that would allow large-scale mining within Brazil's indigenous reserves.

Hydro / Halvor Molland / Flickr

Alternative Amazon Funding

Although there will certainly be disruption in the short-term as a result of the paralysis in the Amazon Fund, the governors of Brazil's Amazon states, which rely on international funding for their environmental projects, are already scrambling to create alternative channels.

In a press release issued yesterday Helder Barbalho, the governor of Pará, the state with the highest number of projects financed by the Fund, said that he will do all he can to maintain and increase his state partnership with Norway.

Barbalho had announced earlier that his state would be receiving €12.5 million ($11.1 million) to run deforestation monitoring centers in five regions of Pará. Barbalho said: "The state governments' monitoring systems are recording a high level of deforestation in Pará, as in the other Amazon states. The money will be made available to those who want to help [the Pará government reduce deforestation] without this being seen as international intervention."

Amazonas state has funding partnerships with Germany and is negotiating deals with France. "I am talking with countries, mainly European, that are interested in investing in projects in the Amazon," said Amazonas governor Wilson Miranda Lima. "It is important to look at Amazônia, not only from the point of view of conservation, but also — and this is even more important — from the point of view of its citizens. It's impossible to preserve Amazônia if its inhabitants are poor."

Signing of the EU-Mercusor Latin American trading agreement earlier this year. The pact still needs to be ratified.

Council of Hemispheric Affairs

Looming International Difficulties

The Bolsonaro government's perceived reluctance to take effective measures to curb deforestation may in the longer-term lead to a far more serious problem than the paralysis of the Amazon Fund.

In June, the European Union and Mercosur, the South American trade bloc, reached an agreement to create the largest trading bloc in the world. If all goes ahead as planned, the pact would account for a quarter of the world's economy, involving 780 million people, and remove import tariffs on 90 percent of the goods traded between the two blocs. The Brazilian government has predicted that the deal will lead to an increase of almost $100 billion in Brazilian exports, particularly agricultural products, by 2035.

But the huge surge this year in Amazon deforestation is leading some European countries to think twice about ratifying the deal. In an interview with Mongabay, the German environment ministry made it very clear that Germany is very worried about events in the Amazon: "We are deeply concerned given the pace of destruction in Brazil … The Amazon Forest is vital for the atmospheric circulation and considered as one of the tipping points of the climate system."

The ministry stated that, for the trade deal to go ahead, Brazil must carry out its commitment under the Paris Climate agreement to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions by 43 percent below the 2005 level by 2030. The German environment ministry said: If the trade deal is to go ahead, "It is necessary that Brazil is effectively implementing its climate change objectives adopted under the [Paris] Agreement. It is precisely this commitment that is expressly confirmed in the text of the EU-Mercosur Free Trade Agreement."

Blairo Maggi, Brazil agriculture minister under the Temer administration, and a major shareholder in Amaggi, the largest Brazilian-owned commodities trading company, has said very little in public since Bolsonaro came to power; he's been "in a voluntary retreat," as he puts it. But Maggi is so concerned about the damage Bolsonaro's off the cuff remarks and policies are doing to international relationships he decided to speak out earlier this week.

Former Brazil Agriculture Minister Blairo Maggi, who has broken a self-imposed silence to criticize the Bolsonaro government, saying that its rhetoric and policies could threaten Brazil's international commodities trade.

Senado Federal / Visualhunt / CC BY

Maggi, a ruralista who strongly supports agribusiness, told the newspaper, Valor Econômico, that, even if the European Union doesn't get to the point of tearing up a deal that has taken 20 years to negotiate, there could be long delays. "These environmental confusions could create a situation in which the EU says that Brazil isn't sticking to the rules." Maggi speculated. "France doesn't want the deal and perhaps it is taking advantage of the situation to tear it up. Or the deal could take much longer to ratify — three, five years."

Such a delay could have severe repercussions for Brazil's struggling economy which relies heavily on its commodities trade with the EU. Analysists say that Bolsonaro's fears over such an outcome could be one reason for his recently announced October meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping, another key trading partner.

Maggi is worried about another, even more alarming, potential consequence of Bolsonaro's failure to stem illegal deforestation — Brazil could be hit by a boycott by its foreign customers. "I don't buy this idea that the world needs Brazil … We are only a player and, worse still, replaceable." Maggi warns, "As an exporter, I'm telling you: things are getting very difficult. Brazil has been saying for years that it is possible to produce and preserve, but with this [Bolsonaro administration] rhetoric, we are going back to square one … We could find markets closed to us."

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