EDF Health

FDA finds surprisingly high levels of PFAS in certain foods – including chocolate cake

Tom Neltner, J.D.Chemicals Policy Director and Maricel Maffini, Ph.D., Consultant

As reported by the Associated Press today, at a conference last week in Helsinki, Finland, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) presented the results of three studies it conducted of 16 per- and poly-fluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) in various foods. A friend who attended the conference sent us photos of the poster. The results for samples of meat and chocolate cake purchased by the agency in October 2017 as part of its ongoing Total Diet Study (TDS) jumped out at us as surprisingly high and worth further investigation:

  • 17,640 parts per trillion (ppt) of perfluoro-n-pentanoic acid (PFPeA) in chocolate cake with icing. These levels suggest that the cake was contaminated from the intentional use of the chemical to greaseproof paper that contacted the cake rather than from an environmental source. We cannot find any evidence that FDA ever reviewed the safety of PFPeA as a food contact substance – meaning the manufacturer may have secretly designated it as Generally Recognized as Safe (GRAS). We also found little evidence – good or bad – of the health risks posed by this PFAS. We have reached out to FDA to learn more, but as of this blog posting the agency has not yet responded. This chemical was also found in chocolate milk at 154 ppt.
  • Nearly half (10 of 21) meat samples had quantifiable levels of perfluoroctanesulfonate (PFOS) with concentrations ranging from 134 ppt in a frankfurter to 865 ppt in tilapia. Unlike the chemical in chocolate cake, PFOS has been extensively studied because of widespread environmental contamination, especially around the facilities in Alabama and Minnesota where it was previously produced. It is associated with increased cholesterol, thyroid disease, testicular cancer, and decreased birth weight. While comparisons are complicated, the PFOS levels found in some of these meats were far greater than the 70 ppt health advisory set by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) for drinking water in May 2016. Two years later, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) proposed limits that are almost 7 times more protective than EPA’s, partly because more recent studies indicate the chemical may undermine the effectiveness of vaccines. Production of PFOS in the United States reportedly ended in 2002, though it is still made overseas and may have been imported paper. In 2016, FDA removed its approval to greaseproof paper with PFOS.

FDA’s poster also showed testing results from food produced around two PFAS contaminated areas. FDA found most of the 16 PFAS at varying levels measured in produce sold in farmer’s markets downstream of a PFAS production facility in the Eastern U.S. – presumably Chemours’ plant in North Carolina. The highest produce sample had 1,200 ppt and was purchased within 10 miles downstream of the production plant and short-chain PFAS were prevalent.

The other contaminated area was a dairy farm near an air force base in New Mexico. FDA found many of the 16 PFAS in the water and silage used to feed the cows but PFOS was the most prevalent among a few PFAS measured in the milk with levels higher than 5000 ppt. The agency also detected several PFAS in cheese produced by the farm in lower amounts than the milk. Many of the PFAS are likely from aqueous film forming foam (AFFF) used to fight fire and conduct firefighting training at the Air Force base.

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Posted in FDA, Food, GRAS, PFAS, Public Health / Tagged , , , | 2 Responses

EPA distorts the scientific evidence and fails to protect kids’ brains in its proposed limit for perchlorate in drinking water

Tom Neltner, J.D.is Chemicals Policy Director and Maricel Maffini, Ph.D., Consultant

Today, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) proposed a Maximum Contaminant Level (MCL) of 56 parts per billion (ppb) for perchlorate in drinking water – more than three times less protective than an interim health advisory level set in 2008. To justify this increase, EPA turned its back on scientific evidence showing that this potent neurotoxin undermines childrens’ motor development and control and can increase their anxiety and depression. The agency’s reasoning is inconsistent with its own analysis published in a draft report in late 2017 and the findings of a peer review panel it convened last year to review that report.

If the agency had used the most protective scientific study and the most sensitive endpoint evaluated in the proposed rule, the MCL would likely be 4 ppb – more than three times more protective than the current health advisory. As a result, the agency fails to adequately protect children from a lifetime of harm. With this MCL, EPA is allowing pregnant women to be exposed to perchlorate in the first trimester of pregnancy at levels that pose much greater risk of impaired neurodevelopment in their children.

The proposed MCL – and how the agency reached it – was both a disappointment and a surprise to us. In late 2017, we applauded the agency’s scientists for developing an innovative model connecting a mother’s perchlorate exposure in the first trimester to fetal harm. We were not alone – in early 2018, EPA’s peer review panel congratulated the agency’s scientists on their analysis. We also complimented EPA’s population-based approach to developing an MCL by estimating the percent of pregnant women, and their children, with borderline thyroid dysfunction due to low iodine intake.

So how did EPA abruptly change course and estimate an MCL less protective than the current health advisory? By altering its analysis in three subtle but significant ways:

  1. Rejecting five epidemiology studies showing harm at even lower exposure levels in favor of one IQ study by Korevaar et al. in 2016.
  2. Choosing an MCL that allows an IQ loss of 2 points even though the study showed a 1 point loss was statistically significant.
  3. Dismissing an alternative, population-based method that EPA proposed in 2017 that reinforces the need for a more protective standard.

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Posted in Drinking Water, EPA, Health Policy, Health Science, perchlorate / Tagged , , , | Read 1 Response

EPA’s safety standard for perchlorate in water should prioritize kids’ health

Tom Neltner, J.D.is Chemicals Policy Director and Maricel Maffini, Ph.D., Consultant

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) will soon propose a drinking water standard for perchlorate. The decision – due by the end of May per a consent decree with the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC)— will end a nearly decade-long process to regulate the chemical that has been shown to harm children’s brain development.

In making its decision, EPA must propose a Maximum Contaminant Level Goal (MCLG) “at the level at which no known or anticipated adverse effects on the health of persons occur and which allows an adequate margin of safety.”[1] It must also set a Maximum Contaminant Level (MCL) as close to the MCLG as feasible using the best available treatment technology and taking cost into consideration.

To guide that decision, EPA’s scientists developed a sophisticated model that considers the impact of perchlorate on the development of the fetal brain in the first trimester when the fetus is particularly vulnerable to the chemical’s disruption of the proper function of the maternal thyroid gland. As discussed more below, the model was embraced by an expert panel of independent scientists through a transparent, public process that included public comments and public meetings.

In April, a consulting firm published a study critiquing EPA’s model. The authors acknowledged the model as a valuable research tool but did not think it is sufficient to use in regulatory decision-making due to uncertainties. Therefore, the authors concluded that EPA should discard the peer-reviewed model and rely on a 14-year old calculation of a “safe dose” that does not consider the latest scientific evidence and has even greater uncertainties. They didn’t offer other options such as using uncertainty factors to address their concerns about the model’s estimated values.

Given the importance of the issue and the risk to children’s brain development, we want to explain EPA’s model, the process the agency used to develop it, and the study raising doubt about the model.

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Posted in Drinking Water, EPA, Health Policy, Health Science, Industry Influence, perchlorate / Tagged , , , | Read 2 Responses

Too much cadmium and lead in kids’ food according to estimates by FDA

Tom Neltner, J.D.Chemicals Policy Director and Maricel Maffini, Ph.D., Consultant

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) released a study in April estimating young children’s exposure to lead and cadmium from their diets and identifying food groups that are a significant source of these heavy metals. The study used data from the agency’s Total Diet Study (TDS) program for 2014 to 2016 and the Center for Disease Control and Prevention’s (CDC) What We Eat in America (WWEIA) Survey for 2009 to 2014.[1]

The study is a reminder of how pervasive heavy metals are in children’s diets and that, while the levels are relatively low, the cumulative exposure is significant. Based on FDA’s analysis (Table 1 below), we estimate that about 2.2 million children exceeded the agency’s maximum daily intake (MDI) for lead at a given time. The results for cadmium are new and worrisome, with estimated daily intake (EDI) levels that are 3 to 4 times greater than lead. And while FDA has not yet set an MDI limit for cadmium, the average young child exceeds most of the relevant daily exposure limits set by other agencies. Clearly, cadmium warrants greater attention, but note that the evidence of neurotoxicity is still emerging.

Table 1: Young children’s estimated dietary intake (EDI) of lead and cadmium based on FDA’s TDS results for years 2014 to 2016 (based on hybrid method)

Age GroupLead Mean EDI Lead 90th Percentile EDICadmium Mean EDICadmium 90th Percentile EDI
LimitsFDA’s MDI is 3.0No MDL set by FDA. Intake exceeded most limits set by other agencies
1-6 years1.8 µg/day2.9 µg/day6.8 µg/day11.0 µg/day
1-3 years1.7 µg/day2.6 µg/day5.8 µg/day9.7 µg/day
4-6 years2.0 µg/day3.1 µg/day7.8 µg/day12.1 µg/day

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EDF asks judge to rule on legality of FDA rule allowing companies to secretly decide on chemicals in our food

Tom Neltner, J.D.is Chemicals Policy Director

At the end of March, EDF, represented jointly by counsel from Earthjustice and the Center for Food Safety (CFS), asked a federal district court judge to decide as a matter of law that the Food and Drug Administration’s (FDA) Generally Recognized as Safe (GRAS) regulation is unlawful. The GRAS Rule allows food manufacturers to make secret safety determinations for chemicals added to food without notifying FDA or the public and to use such chemicals. If the judge agrees to our request, this would vacate the rule. Two years ago, EDF and others challenged the legality of the GRAS Rule in the Federal District Court for the Southern District of New York. Last September, the court ruled that plaintiffs EDF and the CFS have standing, setting the stage for a decision on the merits of the case.

In the Motion for Summary Judgment, we identify the following four ways in which FDA violated the law in the GRAS Rule. FDA has until May 28 to respond to our motion.

  1. FDA unlawfully delegated to food manufacturers its authority to determine the safety of chemicals added to our food.

When Congress enacted the Federal Food Drug and Cosmetic Act (FFDCA) of 1938, it gave FDA the responsibility to ensure the nation’s food is safe and free from harmful substances. To implement this responsibility, it provided the agency broad authority to adopt necessary regulations.

Unfortunately, in the GRAS Rule, instead of fulfilling its responsibility to keep food safe, FDA formally and unlawfully outsourced its responsibility to the regulated entities themselves – namely, for-profit additive manufacturers – allowing them to decide for themselves, in secret, whether the chemical substances they have manufactured can be added to food. This unlawful delegation – made without express statutory authorization – makes it all but impossible for FDA to fulfill its obligations under the FFDCA.

As a result, the GRAS Rule impermissibly allows regulated, private companies with obvious conflicts of interest to self-certify the use of their chemical additives as GRAS without notifying FDA. This is not a case where FDA is seeking legitimate outside input to gather factual information or advice and make policy recommendations. Here, FDA retains no oversight over these secret GRAS determinations that directly affect the safety of our food and thus render it impossible for the agency to fulfill its statutory mandate to keep our food safe.

By delegating its authority in the GRAS Rule, the agency violated Constitutional principles, the FFDCA, and the Administrative Procedures Act (APA). The rule effectively insulates the agency from democratic accountability for food safety decisions and denies citizens their right to seek judicial review of decisions about the safety of substances that may be added to food.

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Latest available national data shows increase in blood lead levels for at least 2 million kids

Tom Neltner, J.D.Chemicals Policy Director

In February, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) released a report summarizing the biomonitoring data from its National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES). Given EDF’s focus on protecting children from lead exposure, we went straight to the most recent blood lead monitoring results. The results are disturbing. As shown in Figure 1 below, after years of progress, in 2015-16 the blood lead levels (BLLs) of more than 2 million young children[1] increased:

  • Average child BLL: 48% BLL decrease from 2007-8 to 2013-14 but only a 3% decrease in 2015-16.
  • 75th percentile BLL (75% of children are below this level): 51% decrease from 2007-8 to 2013-14 but a 2% increase in 2015-16.
  • 90th percentile BLL: 51% decrease from 2007-8 to 2013-14 but an 18% increase in 2015-16.
  • 95th percentile BLL: 45% decrease from 2007-8 to 2013-14 but a 23% increase in 2015-16.

As with the smaller uptick in 2007-08 (which may have been related to the housing crises), it may only be short-term setback, nonetheless it bears careful examination.

Even more disturbing is the Trump Administration’s response to this information. The Administration:

  • Ignored the data in the rosy picture of progress it painted in its recent Lead Action Plan; and
  • Appears to be repeating mistakes of the past by proposing to slash CDC’s childhood lead poisoning prevention budget in half.

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Posted in EPA, Health Policy, lead / Tagged , | Comments are closed