EDF Health

FDA and industry continue to ignore cumulative effects of chemicals in the diet

Tom Neltner, Chemicals Policy Director and Maricel Maffini, consultant

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has made no apparent progress to comply with the legal requirement that it consider the cumulative effect of chemicals in the diet that have similar health impacts when evaluating the safety of an additive. A year ago, on September 23, 2020, EDF and 11 other organizations[1] filed a formal petition with the agency documenting the problem and asking it begin complying with the law.

We reviewed FDA and industry actions since the petition was filed and found that both continued to ignore the requirement 100% of the time in:

  • Generally Recognized as Safe (GRAS) notices in which companies were required to consider the cumulative effect as part of their determination that a substance’s use was safe;
  • FDA’s responses to those GRAS notices where it found “no questions” with the flawed safety determinations; and
  • FDA’s revised guidance to industry on use of recycled plastics in food packaging.

The agency’s only response to our petition was a March 2021 letter saying it “has not reached a decision due to competing priorities” and that the “petition is currently under active evaluation by [its] staff.”

From what we can see, FDA and industry continue to make safety determinations about chemical additives without regard to their overall effect on individuals’ health and their legal obligations. Is it any surprise that consumers continue to rate chemicals in food their #1 food safety concern? Read More »

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Loosening industry’s grip on EPA’s new chemicals program

Richard Denison, Ph.D., is a Lead Senior Scientist.

[I delivered a shorter version of these comments at the September 22, 2021 webinar titled “Hair on Fire and Yes Packages! How the Biden Administration Can Reverse the Chemical Industry’s Undue Influence,” cosponsored by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER), NH Safe Water Alliance, and EDF.  A recording of the webinar will shortly be available here.  The webinar, second in a series, follows on EPA whistleblower disclosures first appearing in a complaint filed by PEER that are detailed in a series of articles by Sharon Lerner in The Intercept.]

The insularity of the New Chemicals Program – where staff only interact with industry and there is no real engagement with other stakeholders – spawns and perpetuates these industry-friendly and un-health-protective policies.

I have closely tracked the Environmental Protection Agency’s New Chemicals Program for many years.  Reluctantly, I have come to the conclusion that the program does not serve the agency’s mission and the public interest, but rather the interests of the chemical industry.  Despite the major reforms Congress made to the program in 2016 when it overhauled the Toxic Substances Control Act, the New Chemicals Program is so badly broken that nothing less than a total reset can fix the problems.

Revelations emerging through responses Environmental Defense Fund finally received to a FOIA request we made two years ago, and through the disclosures of courageous whistleblowers who did or still work in the New Chemicals Program, confirm what I have long suspected, looking in from the outside.  The program:

  • uses practices that allow the chemical industry to easily access and hold sway over EPA reviews and decisions on the chemicals they seek to bring to market;
  • has developed a deeply embedded culture of secrecy that blocks public scrutiny and accountability;
  • employs policies – often unwritten – that undermine Congress’ major reforms to the law and reflect only industry viewpoints; and
  • operates through a management system and managers, some still in place, that regularly prioritize industry’s demands for quick decisions that allow their new chemicals onto the market with no restrictions, over reliance on the best science and protection of public and worker health.

Many of the worst abuses coming to light took place during the Trump administration, and it is tempting to believe the change in administrations has fixed the problems.  It has not.  The damaging practices, culture, policies and management systems predate the last administration and laid the foundation for the abuses.  Highly problematic decisions continue to be made even in recent weeks.

I am encouraged by recent statements and actions of Dr. Michal Freedhoff, Assistant Administrator of the EPA office that oversees TSCA implementation.  They clearly are moves in the right direction.  But it is essential that the deep-rooted, systemic nature of the problem be forthrightly acknowledged and forcefully addressed.

Let me provide some examples of each of the problems I just noted.  Read More »

Posted in EPA, Health Policy, Health Science, Industry Influence, PFAS, Public Health, Regulation, TSCA Reform, Worker Safety / Tagged , | Leave a comment

Chemicals in food continue to be a top food safety concern among consumers

Chemicals in food continue to be a top food safety concern among consumers

Tom Neltner, Chemicals Policy Director and Maricel Maffini, consultant

The latest annual food industry survey demonstrates that U.S. consumers continue to have significant concerns about chemicals in food. Specifically, the survey from the International Food Information Council (IFIC) found:

  • 29% of consumers rated chemicals in food as their top food safety concern, more than any other issue, including foodborne illness from bacteria. Everyone rated chemicals in food among the top three concerns. Chemicals in food has been the top concern every year since 2017, tying risk from COVID-19 from food last year. It has been a significant concern back to the first IFIC Food and Health Survey in 2009.
  • 69% of consumers did not realize that the U.S. government is responsible for reviewing the safety of low-calorie sweeteners, which are among the most well-known food additives.
  • 54% of consumers reported it is important that ingredients do not have “chemical-sounding names” including 26% that rate it “very important.” Their opinion is primarily based on food safety and healthfulness concerns.

Our takeaway is that consumers continue to be concerned about chemicals in food, partly because they are not confident that the federal government is actually ensuring additives are safe. Therefore, they do their best to try and protect their health and safety by avoiding ingredients that sound like chemicals – the only way they see to control the perceived risk. In reaction to consumer concerns, food companies have undertaken “clean label” programs that either remove these ingredients (which can be helpful) or use names that do not sound like chemicals (which obscure the fact and can be misleading).

A better approach is to actually ensure the chemicals in food are safe and healthy rather than leaving consumers to judge products based on the sound of the ingredient names. Actual safety is the outcome that Congress intended when it adopted the Food Additives Amendment of 1958. Instead, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), the agency with both the responsibility and the authority for food safety, allows companies to decide in secret that additives are safe, fails to consider the cumulative health effect of chemicals in the diet, and lacks any systematic reassessment of past decisions even when new evidence shows potential harm.

FDA needs to step up and address these shortcomings to make our food safe and restore consumer confidence. This involves not only improving its approach to addressing ingredient safety but also their approach towards contaminants that enter our food from the environment, from the packaging, or from food processing.

Read More »

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Beyond paper, part 2: PFAS intentionally used to make plastic food packaging

Tom Neltner, Chemicals Policy Director; Maricel Maffini, consultant; and Tom Bruton with Green Science Policy Institute

Since 2002, FDA has authorized the use of four types of per- and polyfluorinated alkyl substances (PFAS) to make plastic food packaging, one as recently as 2016. The PFAS are allowed in plastic at levels up to 2000 parts per million (ppm); although lower than those used to greaseproof paper, these levels still contaminate food. The PFAS are added to facilitate the production of articles such as bottles and wraps. They reportedly improve polymer extrusion, reduce build-up on the injection mold, and improve surface roughness among other technical effects.

EDF submitted a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request for seven food contact substance notices (FCNs) that FDA has authorized. From FDA’s response[1], we learned that these PFAS can contaminate food in contact with the packaging. In one case the overall amount of the PFAS in the diet would be as high as 41 ppb (see pages 31-32 of FOIA response) – much more than is tolerated for some PFAS in drinking water.

These plastic processing aids, along with fluorinated polyethylene, are the latest additions to a growing list of sources of ‘forever chemicals’ in the diet. They join environmental contamination and greaseproofed paper and cardboard as sources that food companies must consider in order to keep PFAS out of their products and respond to consumer demand for safer food. Given the evidence, FDA needs to move forward pursuant to our June 2021 citizens petition to evaluate the safety of PFAS taking into account the cumulative effect of these chemicals in the diet from many sources.

Read More »

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FDA acts on fluorinated plastic packaging. What are next steps?

Tom Neltner, Chemicals Policy Director and Maricel Maffini, consultant

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) took an important step last week to protect food from PFAS contamination from plastic packaging. On August 5, the agency sent a letter to manufacturers, distributors, and users of fluorinated polyethylene food contact articles reminding them that these articles must be made under specific conditions to comply with existing regulation or otherwise the food contact articles “are not lawful.” Therefore, the food that contacted them should not be permitted for sale. The agency gave three examples of manufacturing processes that do not comply with the regulation. We flagged concerns with fluorinated plastic packaging in a July blog and applaud the agency for this action.

This significant first step needs to be followed:

  1. Investigate the companies that provided fluorinated plastic packaging for food and cosmetic uses to determine whether their products complied with the law. If not, then alert food manufacturers and retailers so they can recall the adulterated food and cosmetics.
  2. Reassess whether the process FDA approved in 1983 for fluorinating polyethylene generates PFAS and whether it should still be considered safe.

Investigate companies that provided fluorinated plastic packaging

In the letter, FDA’s Office of Food Additive Safety (OFAS) states that “available information indicates that some manufacturers of fluorinated polyethylene produce articles via alternative manufacturing methods from that stipulated in FDA’s regulation.” It identified three specific examples and says that “these alternative processes for fluorination of polyethylene are not compliant with 21 CFR § 177.1615, and are not lawful for use in food contact articles.” The three examples of unlawful manufacturing processes are:

  1. “Fluorination of polyethylene for non-food uses may occur during the fabrication or molding of the container.”
  2. “Use of fluorine gas in combination with other inert diluents such as carbon dioxide, helium, or argon.”
  3. Incorporation of oxygen into the fluorinating mixture to modify the properties of the final container.

A market search shows several brands that have in-mold fluorination of high-density polyethylene (HDPE), (here and here) and another that may use oxygen or other gases in combination with fluorine.

With the letter public, FDA’s Office of Regulatory Affairs (ORA), which handles field inspections and sampling for the agency, should ensure compliance by food manufacturers all along the supply chain. Where it finds a violation, it would manage the recall of the adulterated food.

Reassess whether the allowed use generates PFAS and should still be considered safe

About a week before FDA sent out the letter, the agency responded to our May 2021 FOIA request for the documentation that resulted in its 1983 approval of fluorinated polyethylene packaging at 21 CFR § 177.1615. The approval came in response to a 1979 food additive petition by Union Carbide.

As with most of FDA’s FOIA responses, the 233-page document has extensive redactions of health and safety information. However, two things come through clearly:

  1. Nitrogen and fluorine only: In its petition and communications with FDA, Union Carbide was inconsistent when it explained whether nitrogen was only an example of an acceptable inert gas. FDA scientists demanded clarity and the company agreed that only nitrogen would be allowed. In its recent letter, FDA reminds companies that only this condition is approved.
  2. Fluorinated organics: The petition included studies of the chemicals that migrated into a simulated food such as water or alcohol. The study evaluated the residue that remained after the food simulant was evaporated off. Union Carbide maintained that fluorine in the residue was almost entirely ionic fluorine – the kind added to toothpaste – and showed that the exposure was within tolerated levels. FDA scientists kept pushing back explaining that there was evidence the residue contained substances with a carbon-fluorine bond – a indicator of what we now refer to as PFAS. FDA finally relented, stating that “our general conclusion is that low molecular weight fluorocarbon-oxygen compounds should not be present in significant quantities.” (see page 195 of FOIA response).

We now know that levels of PFAS that were considered insignificant by FDA in the 1980s pose significant risks as evidenced by some of the agency’s recent actions. For those reasons, we reaffirm our call in our July 2021 blog and in the June 2021 citizens petition submitted by 11 organizations to FDA to reassess the safety of PFAS uses, including fluorinated polyethylene.

As part of that reassessment, FDA needs to revisit the concerns raised by the agency scientists in 1983 in light of the risks posed by PFAS. Specifically:

  • Nitrogen: In its August 5 letter, FDA states that a form of PFAS known as perfluoroalkyl carboxylic acids “can form when the fluorination of HDPE occurs in the presence of oxygen or water, but not in the presence of nitrogen.” However, the agency does not acknowledge that commercially available nitrogen contains contaminants like oxygen. Food-grade nitrogen can have as much as 10,000 parts per million (ppm) of oxygen and 55 ppm of water. These levels could well be sufficient to generate significant amounts of PFAS.
  • PFAS leaching into food: Since the amount of PFAS in food considered “significant” is dramatically lower than in 1983 when FDA made its decision, the agency needs to evaluate whether it is practical – even with the purest nitrogen – to fluorinate plastic without making PFAS.

If the agency determines that the fluorine gas treatment process creates any PFAS, the law explicitly requires that FDA evaluate safety after taking into account the cumulative effects of related substances in the diet that have related health impacts. As with virtually all of its decisions, the agency failed to do that for its 1983 approval. Given the pervasive presence of PFAS in the environment and the additional PFAS FDA authorized for use in food packaging, this type of review is even more important.

Conclusion

In summary, FDA’s August 5, 2021 letter is an important step in the effort to protect consumers from PFAS in food. Now the agency needs to investigate the companies that provided fluorinated plastic packaging for food and cosmetic uses to determine whether the products complied with the law and take action. It must also reassess the safety of the packaging even if it complies with the specific conditions in its 1983 approval.

Posted in FDA, Food, Health Policy, PFAS, Regulation, Uncategorized / Tagged , , , , | Comments are closed

Fixing America’s lead in water crisis must be a priority for Congress

Eric Jjemba, Health Legislative Intern, Joanna Slaney, Legislative Director, and Tom Neltner, Chemicals Policy Director

Last week, over 100 House members led by Representatives Paul Tonko (D-NY), Jan Schakowsky (D-IL), Daniel Kildee (D-MI), Gwen Moore (D-MI), and Henry Cuellar (D-TX) sent a letter to Speaker Nancy Pelosi asking that she prioritize funding for full lead service line (LSL) replacement in “any major infrastructure legislation moving through the chamber.” Additionally, a group of 8 medical and health associations led by the American Academy of Pediatrics sent a letter of their own urging Congressional leadership “​​to fully fund this proposed public health measure with $45 billion.” These letters highlight the broad support around treating America’s lead in water crisis as one that necessitates federal action. EDF, and many others, have advocated  for $45 billion in funding to fully replace the more than 9 million remaining LSLs in the country.

For too many families in this country, turning on the faucet for water essentially means drinking through a lead straw. This hundred year old legacy problem of LSLs impacts communities across the nation, but it disproportionately harms already overburdened communities– those that experience racial, economic, and environmental disparities together. To make sure that necessary assistance reaches those that need it most, including low-income communities, communities of color, and rural communities, the federal government needs to adequately fund full LSL replacement across the country.

EDF applauds the members of Congress and key public health organizations that are continuing to push for this investment, of which we have frequently outlined the clear and tangible benefits. Among these are:

  • Protecting health, especially for children, who are likely to have their brain development impaired by lead, contributing to learning and behavioral problems and lower IQs. While children of color and those from low-income families remain at the greatest risk of lead exposure, adults are also at risk of heart disease – even at low exposure levels. 
  • Reducing disparities by advancing equity for low-income communities and communities of color (including small and rural ones) that may lack the capacity to pursue federal funds, have not developed an inventory of their LSLs, and would not otherwise have the resources to do the work.
  • Creating good paying jobs in construction and plumbing through shovel-ready work. Most communities have a good sense of where many of the LSLs are in their water systems, meaning this work can get off the ground quickly.

Read More »

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