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Reducing the Forever Chemicals in the Food We Eat

Canada currently doesn’t test its agricultural soils for PFAS like some American states. But changes are coming.

Michelle Gamage 9 Jan 2024The Tyee

Michelle Gamage is The Tyee’s health reporter. This reporting beat is made possible by the Local Journalism Initiative.

British Columbia doesn’t currently test agricultural soils for per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, also known as PFAS or forever chemicals, which have been linked to serious health concerns. Teflon, known for its use in non-stick cookware, is a well-known PFAS.

South of the border, Maine and Michigan have started testing farmland for PFAS and have been working on remediating contaminated sites. Agricultural testing elsewhere in the country is minimal, according to reporting by Civil Eats.

PFAS get into agricultural fields when the water is contaminated, if the soil was previously contaminated from a nearby factory or when farmers spread biosolids on their crops. Biosolids are a highly nutritious plant fertilizer made from the solids in human sewage. That’s right — poop.

In 2022, Maine outlawed the use of biosolids as a fertilizer in an effort to reduce agricultural PFAS contamination.

In B.C., biosolids are used in many different ways, with the majority being used in compost (24 per cent) and as a growing medium (22 per cent). Only nine per cent gets used in agriculture. In a given year the province produces 38,000 dry tonnes of biosolids, which the government notes is “enough to cover a football field 25 metres deep.”

PFAS enter our wastewater not from human poop, but from the non-stick packaging, cosmetics, food and flame retardants that get washed down our drains, says Gunilla Öberg, a professor at the University of British Columbia’s Institute for Resources, Environment and Sustainability. Think about your Gore-Tex jacket and the wax paper that your pizza is served on, she says — if it’s water resistant and non-stick, then it likely contains PFAS.

The federal government says PFAS can damage your liver, immune system, reproductive health, development, thyroid function and metabolism. Some PFAS exposure has also been linked to cancer.

And while Öberg agrees it’s important to track and monitor agricultural contamination, she says Canadians should be much more concerned about PFAS exposure from their tap water and food.

PFAS have been widely used since the 1950s and, unfortunately, are found more or less everywhere around the world, Öberg says. You’ve likely got some in your blood right now.

Our bodies absorb PFAS much faster than they can excrete them, which means they build up over time.

How to reduce PFAS exposure

There are a couple of personal changes you can make to reduce your exposure, Öberg says.

To start, filter your tap water with an activated carbon filter or reverse osmosis filter, she says. On a molecular level PFAS are long chains of carbon and fluorine molecules, so they’ll be captured by the carbon filter.

The bond between the carbon and fluorine molecules is very strong, which is why these chemicals last for so long in any environment, she adds.

Avoiding waxy paper and non-stick materials is also a good idea, both at home and in restaurants — for example, ask your server to bring you a pizza without the checkered paper underneath, she says. Get rid of your Teflon-coated cookware, avoid microwaveable popcorn and never reheat food in a takeout container: microwave food in porcelain or glass only.

You can also “stop putting stuff in your face and mouth that contains PFAS,” she says. Many beauty products contain PFAS, so use the EWG Skin Deep cosmetics database to check what’s in your daily products, she says.

At a federal level, Canada is working on creating regulations for PFAS to reduce exposure.

In May 2023, the Canadian Food Inspection Agency said it is kicking off a process to regulate PFAS in fertilizers as part of the federal government’s work to reduce Canadians’ exposure to PFAS, for example.

The Canadian Food Inspection Agency says it will implement an interim standard of 50 parts per billion of perfluorooctane sulfonic acid, or PFOS, a PFAS, on all domestic and imported fertilizers.

There are currently no standards for PFAS in biosolids in Canada.

It could also be possible to reduce the amount PFAS moves up the food chain by switching up the crops grown in contaminated fields. Fruit trees, garlic and asparagus don’t pick up PFAS.

Other crops, such as hemp, do. The Mi'kmaq Nation, whose traditional territory, near the Maine-Canada border, has been heavily polluted by PFAS, is growing hemp to suck PFAS out of the soil.

In 2022 the province said it would update its Organic Matter Recycling Regulation, which governs biosolids use, in order to add the ability to test for PFAS. The Ministry of Environment and Climate Change Strategy said these changes would likely happen this year.

Regulating PFAS is tricky because when chemicals move through ecosystems they can break down and change, Öberg says.

She points to the insecticide DDT as an example of how chemicals can break down in an environment to become more harmful over time.

When DDT was invented in the 1940s, it was found to help reduce the spread of insect-borne diseases such as malaria, typhus and sandfly fever without any negative impacts on humans, Öberg says. The inventor even won the Nobel Prize.

What people didn’t know at the time is that DDT can degrade into a compound known as DDE. In animal testing, DDE has been found to cause harmful effects on the nervous system, liver and reproductive systems. For smaller animals like fish, it is toxic.

The USA banned the insecticide use of DDT in 1972.

Historically, chemical testing “tried to focus on something static like ‘Is this molecule dangerous?’” Öberg says. It would be better to try and ask, “Is this whole process causing damage?”

Even so, it’s difficult to know what to test for and to organize long-term studies to track the impact of a mix of chemicals, Öberg adds. There’s also the added challenge of how finances play into risk assessment: the cost of cleaning up wastewater discharge and how it could affect a company’s ability to compete internationally also gets considered.

“It’s quite frustrating,” Öberg says. “The chemical industry is one of the fastest-growing industries and it’s a major contributor to climate change. It creates huge harms but is also hugely helpful, for example with pharmaceuticals or when creating sustainable materials.”

She says we need to push governments to create better controls and better testing for these substances.

Governments around the world are starting to change their approach to chemical regulation, Öberg says. Canada used to test chemicals one at a time, but the government is reviewing PFAS as a group and working out ways to regulate the thousands of chemicals contained in that group.

“We live longer today and have better clothes and things thanks to the chemical industry. But at the same time we’re polluting ourselves,” Öberg says. “We can’t just forbid the use of all chemicals. We need a lot of smart people to help us think about how to do this better.”  [Tyee]

Read more: Health, Food, Environment

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