For decades, the FDA knew ‘forever chemicals’ were harmful but failed to act

The Food and Drug Administration has understood since 1966 that the toxic “forever chemicals” known as PFAS could increase cholesterol and cause liver lesions, E&E reported today.

But for decades the agency approved proposals by Dupont, 3M and other companies to use PFAS in food packaging, despite knowing the chemicals migrate to food.

PFAS have been linked to serious health concerns, including cancer, harm to fetal development and reduced vaccine effectiveness.

Drinking water and other household products can expose people to PFAS. But the Environmental Protection Agency estimates that for most Americans, food is also a large source of exposure to these chemicals. One way PFAS get into food is they migrate from food packaging. Another potential source of exposure to PFAS through food is PFAS-contaminated irrigation water or sewage sludge applied to food crops.

Timeline: For decades, the FDA knew toxic 'forever chemicals' were dangerous but continued to allow their use.

As far back as the 1960s, animal studies showed the chemicals caused harm even months after exposure ended and industry studies showed they could migrate from paper and paperboard food packaging into food.

An EWG analysis of FDA records found:

  • In 1965, the FDA allowed PFAS to be used in food packaging based on the assumption that no PFAS would migrate from the packaging to the food.
  • A year later, the FDA rejected DuPont’s request to use PFAS in food packaging. The FDA learned PFAS do migrate from the packaging to food and that PFAS could harm the liver and kidney.
  • But in 1967, the FDA approved DuPont’s request – even though DuPont studies showed PFAS could migrate to the food, and DuPont failed to address health concerns.
  • In 1968, the FDA approved 3M’s request to use PFAS in food packaging.
  • In 1970, the FDA allowed 3M’s PFAS to be used in packaging for more food types.
  • For decades, the FDA has continued to approve new PFAS for use in food packaging, despite new studies raising concerns about liver damage, cancer, and accumulation in blood and organs, warnings from public health groups, and warnings from the EPA. 

It took until 2010 for FDA scientists to issue a toxicology memo raising concerns about some PFAS in food packaging. In 2019, FDA tests confirmed PFAS are in our food, but the FDA downplayed the risks. The FDA also developed a new test method and detection limits, which could be undercounting detections of PFAS.

Because of the FDA’s failure to act, seven states have banned PFAS from food packaging. Eleven states are considering bills this year to ban PFAS in food packaging. In 2021, public health groups petitioned the FDA to ban PFAS from food packaging.

The records suggest the FDA knew PFAS could be harmful before other federal agencies, including the EPA and Department of Defense, learned of the risks. The EPA first learned PFAS were toxic in 1998, and the DOD first learned it in 1973.

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