A chemical that can increase the risk of cancer and has been linked to childhood development issues and other health risks has been appearing in an increasing number of places in consumers' everyday lives, and the most recent discovery features contamination in popular restaurant chains.
The chemical, per-and poly-fluoroalkyl substances, or PFAS, was found in compostable bowls from Chipotle, Sweetgreen and Dig Inn, among others. Earlier this year, water sources at military camps tested positive for high levels of PFAS. The chemical does not break down, and can impact the environment in different ways: they can contaminate compost and soil, and pollute water sources.
“One thing that [makes these compounds] unique is that they’re really persistent,” said Jennifer Guelfo, an assistant professor in Texas Tech University’s Civil, Environmental and Construction Engineering Department. “That may raise the red flag a little higher than [with] some other types of contaminants.”
The New Food Economy tested fiber bowls from 14 locations of eight New York City restaurants and found that they contained high levels of fluorine, which indicates intentional treatment with PFAS compounds.
PFAS are a class of more than 4700 fluorinated compounds that are manufactured to create grease-, water- or stain-resistant barriers on a product. PFAS are called “forever chemicals” because of their persistence. These compounds are created by a chain of fluorine-carbon, which is one of the strongest chemical bonds.
Once they enter the environment and human body, they can accumulate over time and do not break down. The compounds have also been linked to increased cancer risk, thyroid hormone disruption and issues with childhood development.
The New Food Economy’s finding of the forever chemical in these bowls means that they are not compostable and instead are likely worsening soil and water quality.
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Dig Inn and Sweetgreen did not respond to requests for comment. Chipotle told NBC that its suppliers operate under FDA guidelines, which have certified that the company’s products meet regulatory requirements.
The FDA, which is responsible for regulating food packaging, limits PFAS concentrations to between 0.25% and 1.5%. The average amount of PFAS found in the bowls tested by the New Food Economy was approximately 2000 parts per million, or a concentration of 0.2%, Notre Dame chemist Graham Peaslee said. The average PFAS level found by the New Food Economy falls within the FDA's acceptable range.
“The important thing is not necessarily the exposure I’m going to get eating out of that one bowl, but the exposure I’m going to get from the PFAS that were released into the environment from the production of that bowl,” said Jamie DeWitt, an associate professor in East Carolina University’s Department of Pharmacology and Toxicology.
PFAS are used to make firefighting foam, food packaging (such as grease-resistant paper plates and post containers) and household products such as cleaning items, fabrics and paints. Manufacturing and processing facilities, airports, and military bases are some of the compound’s main sources. The PFAS manufactured and used at these locations are released into the air, soil and water, allowing them to spread. Human exposure occurs by breathing in the chemical, drinking it in tap water or ingesting it through contaminated food packaging.
"That's the biggest issue in my mind," Peaslee told the New Food Economy. "If you don't eat it off your wrapper, you and your kids will be drinking it out of municipal water in two months. That's the scary part."
Peaslee also said that the "worst PFA offenders" are the fire-fighting foam, carpet and textile industries and that the contamination in restaurants is "more of a constant trickle."
The Environmental Working Group, a food advocacy organization, estimates that over 100 million people are drinking tap water contaminated with PFAS. Northeastern University and the Environmental Working Group have identified 712 documented cases of PFAS contamination across 49 states, as of July 2019.
Included in this number is contamination of 206 military installations, some of which contained a PFAS detection level of more than 14 times the health advisory limit set by the EPA. The PFAS containing firefighting foam used at these training bases provides more rapid extinguishment than non-fluorine foams, but also can result in contamination of surrounding soil and water.
Scientists have known about the toxicity of PFAS for nearly 40 years. Concern for PFAS became more urgent when fluorine was discovered in the bloodstreams of people who weren’t working with the chemical, according to DeWitt.
Some PFAS compounds were voluntarily phased out by their primary manufacturers due to health risks. However, scientists know much less about the currently used PFAS compounds than they did about these other chemicals.
Studies exposing experimental animals to PFAS have linked the compound to health risks, but studies on humans have not yet been conducted.
“I think the problem is we don’t really know how dangerous PFAS is," said Jamie Alan, an assistant professor in Michigan State University’s Department of Pharmacology and Toxicology. “There isn’t enough reference data out there to say what is a safe amount [of exposure]…I think we have enough data to be concerned. But how concerned and what steps we need to take to correct these problems, we won’t know for years or decades.”
The EPA has established a health advisory level for PFAS of 70 parts per trillion, an amount that is non-regulatory and non-enforceable. The Agency has a “PFAS Action Plan” that it is using to address problems relating to the chemical and protect public health. The plan’s actionable items include conducting more research, tightening enforcement and regulating drinking water. Eighteen states currently use a collective 64 policies to regulate the compound.
“I think what we really need is consistent federal response for things like water quality standards so that each region isn’t left to develop their own strategy,” Guelfo said. “If you’re separated from a nearby community by only a political border and they have a PFAS problem, if both states have different standards, that’s going to make a nightmare for people trying to regulate the cleanup of this issue.”
Government officials are also taking regulatory action. House Democrats have introduced a bill that would require the Environmental Protection Agency to classify PFAS as “hazardous substances.” Sections 318 and 323 of the National Defense Authorization Act for 2020 addressed solutions for firefighting foam and PFAS water contamination.
The Trump administration expressed concerns for replacing PFAS-containing aqueous film forming foam with fluorine free foam before a suitable replacement has been identified. The White House also does not support the Department of Defense's provision of replacement water for sources where water is contaminated with PFAS, citing cost as a key issue.
DOD spokeswoman Heather Babb told CNBC that, as of July 2019, the department has spent over $550 million on PFAS investigations, which includes providing communities with bottled water and in-home water filtration systems. However, no plan has been established to clean up the contamination across the country, though the Pentagon estimated the project could cost roughly $2 billion, according to CNBC.
To minimize PFAS exposure, consumers should purchase a water filter, cook their own food and check the labels on food and household products before buying them, according to Alan.
“If the PFAS isn’t essential, it shouldn’t be used,” Dewitt said. “That’s really the question: do we need to continue using chemicals that don’t break down?”
Alan added that while the fluorine contained in PFAS has a purpose in firefighting foams, “PFAS’ place is not in Chipotle bowls.”
As public awareness grows, scientists still have many questions. Some areas currently being studied include PFAS’ toxicology, where and how far they can travel and the amount of its compounds currently in the environment.
“We’re finding PFAS in more and more places,” DeWitt said. “Even if we lived in a plastic bubble, the plastic might even have PFAS in it. That’s always a concern…I think our world would be a better place if PFAS were phased out.”