Pesticides face fresh scrutiny as activists find Californian crops soaked in “forever chemicals”
08 May 2023 --- Widely used insecticides and pesticides in California, US, contain high levels of chemicals that are contaminating millions of acres of farmland, according to the Center for Biological Diversity and Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility.
Per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) are used most abundantly in California’s Central Valley on crops such as almonds, grapes, peaches and pistachios.
PFAS are known as “forever chemicals” because they “do not break down in the environment” and are associated with immune system suppression, liver damage, thyroid disease, reduced fertility, high cholesterol, obesity and cancer, according to the study’s authors.
“I can’t imagine anything that could make these products any more dangerous than they already are, but apparently my imagination isn’t big enough,” says Nathan Donley, environmental health science director at the Center for Biological Diversity.
“The US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has to take control of this situation and remove pesticide products that are contaminated with these extremely dangerous, persistent chemicals.”
The study results were submitted to the EPA and the California Department of Pesticide Regulation with an urgent request to avoid these products until “contamination can be removed from their supply lines.”
Contaminated water supplies
The study discovered that the insecticide Malatahion 5EC concentration of Perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) – a kind of PFAS – is 100,000 times over the safety limit for drinking water set by the EPA.
“While communities around the country are struggling to remove PFAS from their drinking water supplies, we are spraying millions of acres of our land with the same toxic chemicals,” says Kyla Bennett, Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility science policy director.
“It’s nonsensical – we can’t protect our drinking water unless and until we get PFAS out of all pesticides,” she underscores.
Of the seven agricultural pesticides tested, three contained PFAS. No PFAS were detected in concentrations above the detection limit in the two tested residential pesticide products.
The other two chemical products found to have high levels of PFAS are Oberon 5EC and Intrepid 2F (insecticides).
According to the scientists, this is not the first time PFAS have been found in pesticide products. Previous testing by the EPA and the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection uncovered high levels of chemicals in several mosquito insecticides in Massachusetts, Florida and New York.
Furthermore, PFAS were found in some flea and tick pesticide products.
PFAS on food?
The scientists warn that producers are “likely” spraying pesticides with PFAS on food, despite the EPA stressing there are no safe levels for some of these chemicals.
Some PFAS were dangerous enough to warrant the EPA to remove 12 chemicals from the approved for-use pesticide products in December.
Meanwhile, the US Food & Drug Administration (FDA) says it is “working to understand the occurrence of PFAS in the general food supply.”
“PFAS exposure from food is an emerging area of science and there remains much we do not yet know about which types of foods are more likely to contain PFAS,” said the FDA in July.
FDA tests on 81 samples of seafood in 2022 showed that FDA testing quality is apparently improving.
“A much greater percentage of samples had detectable levels of PFAS, there were more different types of PFAS detected and the levels detected in multiple samples were higher than we have seen in our previous testing of foods from the general food supply obtained from the FDA’s Total Diet Study,” said the FDA.
The FDA found that some canned clam samples would be “a potential health concern” for children consuming as little as 2 ounces per month (57 grams).
Banning forever chemicals
According to Innova Market Insights, over a third (37%) of global consumers view food safety as one of their two main concerns when purchasing ready meals like sandwiches and wraps, second only to easy transportation (40%).
These concerns have prompted the EU to begin discussions to ban PFAS, with over one hundred consumer brands – from industries including fashion, home goods, food and personal care – supporting a comprehensive chemical ban.
Food packaging can also expose people to “forever chemicals,” with restaurant chains like McDonald’s and Burger King committed to becoming PFAS-free by 2025. Eleven US states have already banned PFAS from most food packaging.
The chemicals were found early this year in organic egg yolks in Denmark, with scientists flagging that children are most at risk.
By Marc Cervera
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