Tolerable intakes for perfluoroalkylated substances (PFAS) could be much lower than scientists previously thought.
Last year, the European Commission asked the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) to assess the risks to human health related to the presence of PFAS in the food chain. In the first of two assessments, the scientific panel reviewed the two main PFAS – perfluorooctane sulfonate (PFOS) and perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA).
In 2008, EFSA established levels of tolerable daily intake for these two chemicals. But now, EFSA’s scientific panel recommends lowering these levels drastically, indicating that the presence of PFAS in the food chain is a bigger problem to human health than they had previously thought.
The scientific panel recommends lowering the maximal exposure to PFOS from 150 nanograms per kilogram of body weight per day – to 13 nanograms… per week.
PFOS: 150 ng/day –> 13 ng/week
PFOA: 1,500 ng/day –> 6 ng/week
For PFOA, the numbers are even more staggering. EFSA recommends lowering the maximal exposure from 1,500 nanograms per kilogram of body weight per day – to 6 nanograms per week.
To illustrate how drastic this reduction is, imagine reducing your daily intake of calories from the recommended average of 2,000 down to one calorie per day. This calorie budget gives you about two peas per day to savour. Obviously, you wouldn’t survive for long on this diet.
“A considerable portion of the population exceed these levels”
Much in the same way, it is impossible for a large portion of the world’s population to stay below the new recommendations of tolerable weekly intakes for PFOS and PFOA.
The scientific report from EFSA states that a considerable portion exceed these levels and that these exceedances “are of concern”.
“The fact that a large portion of the population is at risk from current exposure must surely fuel all current initiatives to regulate and phase out these toxic chemicals. The current pace is much too slow, things need to speed up”, says Dr. Anna Lennquist, Senior Toxicologist at ChemSec.
The reason for concern is because PFOS and PFOA are associated with several negative health effects such as lowered birth weights, negative effects on the immune system, cancer, reduced sperm quality and attention deficit disorder.
Another concern with these chemicals is that they take forever to break down in nature, causing them to accumulate in our environment and in our bodies. The estimated half-life for PFOS in humans is five years, and for PFOA it is between two and four years. To get rid of them completely, however, takes a lot longer.
“This may only be the tip of the iceberg when it comes to problems related to PFAS”
“This study only looks at two individual chemicals in a large group represented by several thousands of similar chemicals on the market. The results of this study may only be the tip of the iceberg when it comes to problems related to PFAS”, Dr. Anna Lennquist adds.
The scientific study states that one of the main sources of PFAS exposure to humans is food. Animals accumulate these toxic chemicals from the environment and when we then eat food products, such as meat and fish, the substances are transferred to us.
Another source of exposure is food contact materials, which are often treated with PFAS to keep food from sticking to the wrapping or to prevent the material from getting wet and soggy. Hamburger wrappings, pizza boxes and styrofoam containers are examples of this.
“No doubt to the detrimental effect they have on human health and the environment”
This non-stick waterproofing function is exactly what has made PFAS so popular in the past. For almost eighty years, these man-made chemicals have been widely used in industrial applications and consumer goods such as clothes, frying pans, food packaging, furniture.
Nowadays, however, many companies are starting to phase out PFAS from their products since there is no longer any doubt to the detrimental effect they have on human health and the environment.
As more and more safer alternatives are starting to come out on the market, more companies will surely follow suit.
Or at least they should. And so should the policy makers.
The scientific evaluation referred to in this article is a preliminary study, a final study is expected in December 2019.