FDA has failed to take adequate action on dangerous chemicals despite acknowledging harm
Today, a group of health, environmental, and consumer organizations sent a formal petition to the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to ban all PFAS (per- and polyfluorinated alkyl substances) that accumulate in the body.
A Freedom of Information Act request response recently revealed that FDA described serious health concerns with the use of certain “short chain” PFAS in correspondence with PFAS manufacturers, and said that the companies needed to provide evidence that the chemicals were safe to continue using them. The agency then rejected an offer from one company to conduct additional studies within two years because that would take too much time in light of the chemicals’ risks. Despite this, the FDA soon after accepted a separate industry proposal for all manufacturers to have five years to voluntarily phase out the unsafe PFAS.
There is extensive PFAS contamination across the US due to widespread use of the chemicals in many industries, in firefighting foam, in household products, food packaging and more. Scientific evidence demonstrating harm to health, particularly children’s health, from the chemicals is overwhelming. This has resulted in an outcry for action on the chemicals often spearheaded by communities that are dealing with contamination – and significant progress at the state-level.
FDA-approved PFAS are a major contributor to this problem. The chemicals are used in many food applications, including to provide water and grease resistance to paper and paperboard that comes into contact with food. They are commonly found in takeout containers, plastic bottles, disposable bowls and plates in addition to popcorn bags, pet food bags and more.
The petition was filed by Environmental Defense Fund, Breast Cancer Prevention Partners, Center for Environmental Health, Center for Food Safety, Consumer Federation of America, Consumer Reports, Defend Our Health, Environmental Working Group, Green Science Policy Institute, Healthy Babies Bright Futures, and League of Conservation Voters.
FDA has not done enough when it comes to protecting the public from PFAS, and the few actions it has taken have been inadequate and, often, after years of delay. The agency has acted in a piecemeal way, phasing out some varieties of PFAS but still approving new ones for food, all while the evidence accumulates showing the chemicals build up in our bodies and are linked to cancer, immunological, reproductive, and developmental harm. Advocates are now asking the agency to take decisive steps on this class of chemicals.
The petition requests that the FDA revoke all approvals for use of the chemicals in food and food packaging and issue a regulation banning them unless there is evidence that the use is safe. This is necessary not only due to the known danger of many varieties of PFAS, but also the FDA’s inadequate actions thus far on the chemicals. The agency should stop assuming these chemicals are safe and conduct thorough assessments of health and environmental impacts.
“FDA needs to shut the door, permanently, on PFAS in food and food packaging,” said Dr. Maricel Maffini, scientist and coauthor of the petition. “The agency has a poor track record when it comes to evaluating the safety of these chemicals and taking action. We think it’s past time for the FDA to follow the science and put the public’s health first.”
“Given the evidence linking PFAS to numerous health harms, including breast cancer, it is imperative for the FDA to step up and start protecting our health”, said Lisette van Vliet, Senior Policy Coordinator at Breast Cancer Prevention Partners. “Allowing the continued use of these chemicals in food packaging is unacceptable.”
“There is no excuse for the FDA to continue allowing millions of Americans to be exposed to toxic PFAS in food packaging and foodware, especially when safer alternatives are available,” said Sue Chiang, Pollution Prevention Director, Center for Environmental Health. “The FDA needs to turn off the tap to toxic PFAS. We all deserve access to toxic free food that doesn’t harm people across the product lifecycle from workers, to consumers, to fenceline communities disproportionately impacted by irresponsible disposal practices.”
“Americans are routinely exposed to PFAS ‘forever chemicals,’ which are pervasive in food packaging and may be toxic at very low levels,” said Dr. Michael Hansen, PhD, senior scientist at Consumer Reports. “We need action by the FDA to ensure the public is protected and not unwittingly consuming these dangerous substances in the food they eat.”
“While states like Maine, Washington, Vermont, and New York have already taken action to eliminate PFAS from food packaging, the FDA has done little to address the clear hazards PFAS poses,” said Patrick MacRoy, Deputy Director of Defend Our Health. “We hope this petition will provide the impetus for the new administration at FDA to finally provide the Federal leadership desperately called for.”
“The FDA has understood the risks of PFAS since the 1960s but failed to act,” said Scott Faber, Senior Vice President for Government Affairs for the Environmental Working Group. “The evidence linking PFAS to cancer and harm to the reproductive and immune systems has only grown stronger, but the FDA has still refused to protect us. There is no better example of FDA’s broken food chemical review system than the presence of toxic forever chemicals in food packaging. If the FDA once again puts the chemical companies ahead of our health, Congress should simply ban PFAS from food packaging.”
“Persistent chemicals linked to health harm have no place in our food packaging,” said Tom Bruton, PhD, Senior Scientist at Green Science Policy Institute. “FDA should swiftly and transparently revoke approvals for the short-chain PFAS that its own scientists have found are unsafe.”
“There should be no place in the U.S. food supply for toxic chemicals like PFAS that persist in the bodies of pregnant women and children,” said Jane Houlihan, Research Director of Health Babies Bright Futures. “All babies deserve a clean, healthy start in life, free of toxic chemicals that put their healthy development at risk. FDA should help make that a reality.”
“It’s long past time for the federal government to protect our families from dangerous PFAS chemicals once and for all,” said Madeleine Foote, Deputy Legislative Director, LCV. “PFAS contamination is an equity issue – the FDA has a responsibility to protect the health of our communities, particularly communities of color and low-income communities who may be exposed to higher levels of these toxic ‘forever chemicals.’”
This is a formal petition the agency is required by law to answer within 180 days. The petition makes the case that the FDA is leaving people’s health in jeopardy by allowing dangerous PFAS to come into contact with food.