Experts See PFAS’ Ubiquity Undermining Efforts To Limit Ingestion Risk

May 13, 2021

Scientists and attorneys say widespread, persistent contamination from per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) is affecting every level of the food industry from packaging to raw materials, creating a complex challenge for backers of strict limits on the chemicals, under TSCA or various state laws, aimed at keeping them out of food.

“If there's a way to group PFAS into large groups based on, say, chemical size, or functional group and assign a toxicity characteristic there, then you can start to organize a program,” said toxicologist Travis Kline during a May 5 webinar on PFAS in food hosted by the law firm Lathrop GPM. “But there isn't even agreement on what the toxicological ramifications are that should underpin things like drinking water standards.”

Lathrop GPM partner Ally Cunningham noted in her presentation that PFAS have been found at all points of the food supply chain, saying, “You can see PFAS impacts for ingredients for both contaminated produce, from water to vegetable intake ratios, and in your meat and in herd supplies.”

The result, she and other speakers said, is that keeping PFAS out of food remains a difficult task even as some states are advancing bans on perfluorinated chemicals in food packaging, and environmental groups have pressured national or international companies to drop the chemicals from packaging voluntarily.

And it underscores that even if the citizen groups convince EPA to set strict limits on new and existing PFAS uses under the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA), it might not be enough to prevent food contamination.

Kline said that task is further complicated by the developing state-by-state patchwork of PFAS regulations. “If you have a multistate operation, you may have different compliance points in each state that you operate in,” she told listeners.

“That can be very, very challenging to deal with, as well as what's coming down the pike on the federal front. So adapting to that, complying to that, is a big challenge for a lot of manufacturers, but especially those in the food supply industry.”

She said the food sector faces such a difficult burden because PFAS is so common at every stage of its supply chain, from contamination near land used to raise meat or crops, to its inclusion as a nonstick agent in packaging and cookware. The need to consider every step of the supply chain, in addition to state-by-state differences in regulatory mandates, can be difficult for industry stakeholders to wrap their arms around, Cunningham says.

“PFAS is in your baking and cooking utensils, it's in your food packaging, it's in your water sources which goes to both your produce and your animal supply, and fertilizer is a big source of PFAS contamination. And if you have a large property, it's possible you're storing PFAS contamination on your property,” she said.

Those concerns have driven calls from many environmental groups for a TSCA ban on “non-essential” PFAS uses, and for state-level limits in the absence of new federal policy -- either from EPA or other agencies, such as the Food and Drug Administration (FDA).

Cunningham said “widespread federal regulation” is currently “an unknown, particularly from the FDA,” as that agency has been “notably quiet” on PFAS. For instance, she said, FDA rejected a request from the International Bottled Water Association for PFAS standards in the sector, prompting the trade group to set voluntary limits and annual testing requirement for its members instead.

Exposure Standards

Cunningham also warned that states’ varying minimum standards for safe levels of PFAS exposure have complicated the situation for industry -- highlighting the wide range of conclusions experts have reached on the risks of ingesting perfluorinated chemicals even when working from similar underlying data.

Kline added, “If you look across states, everyone picks a different basis, they pick a different animal study, they pick a different effect to be protected against, whether it's ossification of phalanges or delayed mammary gland development, or it's immunosuppression. There's no agreement whatsoever, so it's very much like the Wild West that's playing out mostly on the state playing field at this point.”

And Cunningham said industry is already facing hurdles to comply with what state-level restrictions already exist, due to a variety of factors including limited laboratory capacity for PFAS testing and the stringent limits states have set. “Low regulatory and health levels mean minimal use and release can be problematic,” she said.

She noted that limits on PFAS in water are usually set in terms of parts per trillion -- the equivalent of a single square foot in a space the size of Indiana -- which makes it even more important for firms to secure access to accurate testing.

“The testing is just catching up, and all testing is not created equal, I always say,” Cunningham said. “Some of the testing is more reliable than others, some of the newer testing in the last four years can get to even lower detection limits than we've ever seen before, so it's giving us newer information that we've never had about what's in our food and what's in our food packaging as far as PFAS goes.”

Kline said he feels that a lack of a class or group-based approach to PFAS is “holding back progression” on addressing them, since it would be all but impossible for agencies like EPA to set individual standards for the thousands of perfluorinated compounds in existence.

“We're never ever going to be able to go through all the required testing to see each compound added to EPA's Integrated Risk Information System (IRIS), for instance,” Kline said. “So we're going to have to come to grips with a system to assign relative toxicity … if there's a way to group PFAS into large groups based on, say, chemical size, or functional group and assign a toxicity characteristic there, then you can start to organize a program.”

But he noted that the disputes over how to craft even the limited standards currently in effect make a class-based federal approach a daunting challenge. “[T]here isn't even agreement on what the toxicological ramifications are that should underpin things like drinking water standards.” -- Diana DiGangi (

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