U.S. Congresswoman Rosa DeLauro (D-CT) on Tuesday called for banning a group of man-made chemicals widely used in food packing—at least until they are proven safe for humans.
During a press conference at the Quinnipiac Valley Health District Offices in North Haven, DeLauro, supported by Vasilis Vasiliou, chair of the Department of Environmental Health Sciences at the Yale School of Public Health, and two members of the CT Department of Public Health, Brian Toal, the director of Environmental Health and toxicologist Cheryl Fields, said there are currently too many safety concerns about perfluoroalkyl substances (or PFAS).
More than 4,000 PFAS chemicals are now in circulation and over 60 are currently used in an array of food containers. Although the adverse health effect of PFAS are becoming increasingly clear, yet there are few studies on the impact of PFAS in food packaging on health effects or safety. In fact, said DeLauro, the FDA approves the use of these products because they are found to be effective.
In June, DeLauro and a congressional colleague asked the Government Accountability Office to review the U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s oversight of food additives. “These are forever chemicals. They do not break down,” she said. Citing a 2017 FDA study finding concerning levels in everyday foods such as chocolate cake, seafood and dairy products, she said, “The health of our families comes first.”
DeLauro has also sponsored an amendment to the National Defense Authority Act that has passed in the House of Representatives, to ban PFAS in food containers used to serve military personnel.
The Yale School of Public Health is currently researching PFAS. One of the essential scientific challenges, explained Vasiliou, is how to improve our methods of detecting PFAS and analyzing their health effects. His department is developing new methods of measuring a wide range of PFAS using high resolution mass spectrometry techniques and also creating novel wearable monitors that can be used for personal PFAS exposure assessment. In addition, faculty in his department are studying the health effect of PFAS on humans through epidemiological studies.
“Right now, we have limited knowledge about PFAS with which to make a health assessment,” he said. “We also need to better understand the pathways from food packaging and the environment into our food.”
Vasiliou said that while he doesn’t want the public to panic, it is important to understand the issue.
PFAS have become ubiquitious and 97 percent of the population has at least trace amounts in their blood. The chemicals are found in food packaging (pizza boxes, microwavable popcorn bags, take out containers), fire retardants and non-stick coatings such as Teflon. They are associated with a range of health concerns from developmental problems in infants, hormonal fluctuations, cancer and decreased immunity. The chemicals make their way into the food supply through packaging but are also found in the soil and water used to grow crops.
PFAS are one of the most stable class of chemicals with a strong molecular bond between the carbon and fluorine. This bond means that they persist in water, soil and the body without easily breaking down. The cumulative effects are cause for concern.
Denmark has already banned PFAS in food containers and the State of Washington is trying to find a safe alternative before implementing its ban.
Connecticut Gov. Ned Lamont, meanwhile, assembled a task force in July to examining PFAS and human health, pollution prevention and remediation throughout the state, said Toal. That report is currently open for public comment.
Toal said it is important to find alternatives that are safe and don’t cause even worse problems.
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- Vasilis Vasiliou, PhDDepartment Chair and Susan Dwight Bliss Professor of Epidemiology (Environmental Health Sciences) and of Ophthalmology and Visual Science and of Environment; Director, Yale Superfund Research Center; Affiliated Faculty, Yale Cancer Center; Affiliated Faculty, Yale Institute for Global Health