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PFAS and Microplastics in Food: Should You Worry?

As a dietitian, I’m not just navigating the intricacies of nutrition; I also have to be up to date with food safety laws and any widespread issues that pop up. 

Lately, the buzz around per – and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) and their presence in plastics has started a conversation in the media. Talk of potential health risks, environmental repercussions, and the ubiquity of these compounds in our daily diet are on the rise. The conversation on microplastics, although a different but similar topic, has also reached a level that’s impossible to ignore.

This post will address both PFAS and microplastics in food, since the issues surrounding them are similar.

I think the questions that everyone is asking are, ‘are microplastics harmful? How harmful are PFAS, and where are they found?’

Should you worry about PFAS and microplastics in food?

While both PFAS and microplastics are environmental concerns, they have different sources and pathways of entry into the environment. 

PFAS are intentionally manufactured chemicals, whereas microplastics are the result of the degradation of larger plastic materials or intentional production of small plastic particles for specific applications. 

What are PFAS? 

A lot of us first heard about PFAS in 2020 when they hit the news because of their presence in sparkling water. Consumer Reports, which is an advocacy group, did a study showing that 47 brands of water had levels above what CR has set as their safe levels – 3 ppb.

Please be aware that the federal government’s guidelines are less than 70 ppt (parts per TRILLION). This sort of number fudging by Consumer Reports is akin to what we often see fellow activist group the EWG doing. They did it, for example, when they told everyone that Cheerios contain high levels of glyphosate.

The EWG’s Dirty Dozen and Clean Fifteen is another example of the EWG setting arbitrary safe limits on chemicals that are far lower than what has been determined to be safe for human consumption, and then doing ‘research’ and – surprise!! – finding that food contains more than those levels.

Nonetheless, PFAS are something we all should be aware of. Despite the hysteria that resulted from the CR headlines, we at least began to understand that PFAS are infiltrating our food supply on a larger level than just Teflon frying pans.

PFAS stands for per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, which are a group of human-made chemicals that have been widely used in various industrial and consumer products for decades. The first company to introduce them to the world was DuPont, in Teflon cookware, in the form of PFOA. 

Even though PFOA has mostly been phased out, it took thousands of people becoming seriously and often terminally ill from PFOA contaminated air and drinking water near the DuPont plant in order for that to happen

Unfortunately, newer PFAS have been developed, and these appear to be just as problematic. There are literally thousands of PFAS in existence, many of which haven’t been tested for toxicity.

PFAS are known for their resistance to heat, water, and oil, making them useful in applications such as non-stick cookware, water-resistant fabrics, firefighting foams, and more. We eat them, breathe them, and – a new study has found (although it’s in vitro, not living humans) – likely absorb them through our skin. Some of the sources of PFAS we encounter every day are drinking water (gasp), grease-resistant paper, personal care products like some shampoos, and clothing.

PFAS are often called ‘forever chemicals,’ which means that they don’t break down in the environment

We do excrete some PFAS in our urine, but we can accumulate them at a faster rate than we excrete them. 

This graphic is simple way to see how PFAS get into our environment and our bodies.

what are pfas

are PFAS harmful?

Although new PFAS have been developed, they don’t seem any less harmful to human health. Exposure to PFAS have been linked to an increased risk of some cancers, potentially elevated blood lipidspotential increased risk for obesityimpaired immune health, and other effects

Most of the studies have been done on animals and while PFAS have been shown to have adverse effects, it’s important to note that doses of PFAS that the animals were exposed to are much higher than the doses humans would experience.

Let’s put it this way: nobody is arguing that PFAS aren’t an issue for both the environment and human health. We just need more information to make a solid link and to make a definitive recommendations around dosing, etc.

What are microplastics? 

Microplastics are small plastic particles, typically less than 5 millimeters in size, that result from the breakdown of larger plastic items or are intentionally manufactured at a small size for certain products like exfoliating face washes. Nanoplastics are also microplastics, but they’re so small, they’re actually invisible to the human eye.

To make the distinction, microplastics do not directly produce PFAS. Similar to PFAS, microplastics are not broken down in the environment (or the human body). 

Plastic is largely made using fossil fuels,

We consume microplastics in seafood, drinking water, and salt. 

Even opening a plastic food package and twisting the cap on a plastic bottle releases microplastics into the food product.

A 2023 study in Environmental Science and Technology found that plastic cutting boards – the ones we’ve always thought were ‘safer’ than wood, at least from a bacterial perspective – are a significant source of microplastics in our food. This 2022 study had similar findings. 

Heating food in plastic containers releases more microplastics into the food than refrigeration or room-temperature storage, according to this 2023 study. Even dishwasher detergent pods contribute microplastics to our environment.

Microplastics have been found in human tissues, oceans and ocean animals, sand, even rain and snow. They’re basically everywhere. We eat them and breathe them. Nanoplastics are so tiny, they’ve been found in human cells. Bees have been found to carry microplastics on their bodies.

You all know that I’m always critical of research and definitely don’t overstate risks, but I find all of this pretty upsetting. 

Here’s how microplastics get into honey.

microplastics in food

Here’s how they get into fish:

microplastics in food

A 2019 study found that per year, humans consume 39,000-52,000 microplastic particles per year. Drinking bottled water increases that number by 9000. 

In March 2023, a study delved into the prevalence of microplastics in some soft drinks. Microplastic particles were discovered in all of the top ten soft drinks tested. The study found that each liter of soft drink exposes people to about nine microplastic particles. 

Are microplastics harmful?

Although they’re everywhere, there’s a lot we don’t know yet about the effects of microplastics on human health. 

Not only is it extremely difficult to measure microplastics in the environment, it’s hard to establish causation between them and negative health outcomes. We do suspect that they are likely destructive to our health in some ways, but it’s more of a ‘if there’s smoke, there’s fire’ sort of situation.

With both microplastics and PFAS (and whole lot of other things), the dose will make the poison. Is it possible to consume a certain amount of each of these things and have it be innocuous? Probably. But we don’t yet know where that line is that separates harmless from harmful.

This 2019 review of studies suggests that the ingredients in plastics (and therefore microplastics) are endocrine disruptors. However, most of the studies were done in animals and in lab dishes. Exposing cells to a high amount of a certain chemical does not mimic how that chemical would affect a free-living human.

This 2023 review of studies suggests that microplastics can cause gastrointestinal inflammation, disruption of the gut microbiome, lung disease, reproductive issues, and a whole lot more. However, most of the studies used were done on cells, mussels, and rodents. 

A 2024 study on microplastics published in the New England Journal of Medicine found that patients who had microplastics and nanoplastics in their arterial plaque had a higher risk for cardiovascular issues than people who did not have the particles in their plaque. The study did not establish causation between microplastics and any illness.

The World Health Organization (WHO) has acknowledged the emerging issue of microplastics in the environment, including their presence in water sources and potential ingestion by humans. 

The WHO has emphasized the need for further research to better understand the potential health risks associated with microplastics ingestion. They recognized the importance of monitoring and assessing the levels of microplastics in the environment and their potential impact on human health.

What are the Regulations around PFAS?

In both the U.S. and Canada, regulations around PFAS are being considered and enacted. 

In Canada, PFAS are still used in certain products, but are currently regulated.

The federal government intends on designating PFAS as a class of toxic substances under the Canadian Environmental Protection Act (CEPA). This is the first step to further regulatory restrictions and potential prohibitions on the manufacture, use, sale and import of products containing PFAS.

In the U.S., the EPA is still working to designate PFOA and PFOS as hazardous substances. According to this review, California, Vermont, Colorado, Maine, Maryland, Michigan, New York and Wisconsin are some of the states currently regulating PFAS in products. 

The EPA has a Strategic PFAS Roadmap which includes getting more data around PFAS levels in the nation’s drinking water (UCMR 5).

The bottom line is that there are many types of PFAS, and they are still used in things most of us are exposed to every day.  

What are the Regulations around microplastics?

The manufacture of all toiletries that contain microbeads is now prohibited in Canada, the U.S., and the E.U.

Health Canada has acknowledged that people may be exposed to microplastics by eating food and drinking bottled or tap water, but more research is needed to understand the extent this has on human health over time and to make regulations around microplastics. Similarly, the U.S. does not have microplastic regulations and dosage recommendations. More research is needed.

In April 2024, world leaders convened in Ottawa, Canada for the Global Summit on Plastic Pollution, which aims to be a historic treaty to lessen plastic pollution (and therefore microplastics in the environment). This work is ongoing.

We have a long way to go with research and regulation of both PFAS and microplastics. And while it’s impossible to have no exposure to them, being aware of how to minimize your exposure is probably a good idea.

How to avoid microplastics in food:

Use Glass or Stainless Steel Containers. When storing or microwaving food, opt for glass or stainless steel containers. 

    Avoid Heating Food in Plastic Containers. If possible, transfer food to glass or ceramic containers before reheating.

    Limit Use of Plastic Wrap. When covering food for storage, consider using alternatives like beeswax wraps, parchment paper, or reusable silicone lids.

    Use metal water bottles. Instead of drinking out of one time use plastic water bottles opt for a metal reusable one. 

    Be aware of plastic cutting boards. Use wooden ones when you can.

    Minimizing Exposure to PFAS:

    Be Informed About Products. Learn about products that may contain PFAS, such as non-stick cookware, water-resistant clothing, and certain types of food packaging.

      Use Alternatives to Non-Stick Cookware. Consider using stainless steel, cast iron, or ceramic cookware as alternatives to non-stick pans, which may be coated with PFAS.

      Filter Drinking Water. Use a water filter that is certified to remove PFAS if your water source is potentially contaminated.

      Choose PFAS-Free Products. Look for products labeled as PFAS-free or those specifically marketed as alternatives to PFAS-containing items.

      Always consult with healthcare professionals for personalized advice, especially if you have specific health concerns or conditions related to exposure to these substances. 

      Additionally, staying informed about regulatory updates and ongoing research is essential for making informed choices.

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