Some of the United States’ most widely used food pesticides are contaminated with “potentially dangerous” levels of toxic PFAS “forever chemicals”, new testing of the products finds.
The Environmental Protection Agency has previously been silent on PFAS in food pesticides, even as it found the chemicals in non-food crop products. The potential for millions of acres of contaminated food cropland demands swifter and stronger regulatory action, the paper’s authors say.
“I can’t imagine anything that could make these products any more dangerous than they already are, but apparently my imagination isn’t big enough,” said Nathan Donley, environmental health science director at the Center for Biological Diversity (CBD), which co-authored the study. “The EPA has to take control of this situation and remove pesticide products that are contaminated with these extremely dangerous, persistent chemicals.”
PFAS are a class of about 15,000 chemicals often used to make thousands of consumer products across dozens of industries resist water, stains and heat. The chemicals are ubiquitous, and linked at low levels of exposure to cancer, thyroid disease, kidney dysfunction, birth defects, autoimmune disease and other serious health problems. They are called “forever chemicals” because they do not naturally degrade.
The testing found PFAS in three out of seven agricultural pesticides, including Intrepid 2F, which state of California data shows is the second most widely applied product behind Roundup. In 2021, the most recent year data is available, more than 1.7m pounds of it were applied to over 1.3m cumulative acres of California land. Use was highest in the Central Valley on crops such as almonds, grapes, peaches and pistachios.
The study also found the chemicals in Oberon 2SC Malathion 5EC, the latter of which contains the neurotoxin malathion.
Multiple studies have established that crops absorb PFAS and they can be ingested by humans. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) began monitoring PFAS in food in 2019 and has detected them in fruits and vegetables, but has not set any limits.
The fertilizers are also probably polluting water with PFAS. The level of PFOA, one kind of PFAS compound, found in Malathion 5EC was over 100,000 times higher than the level the EPA considers safe in drinking water, though no limit has been set for PFAS in pesticides.
“There is no better way to poison Americans than contaminate our food supply and soils with PFAS, and the blame for this lies squarely on the shoulders of EPA,” said Kyla Bennett, a co-author and science policy director with Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (Peer).
It is unclear why the chemicals are added to pesticides, though some in the industry have theorized they are used as a dispersing agent. The Intrepid 2F manufacturer Corteva-Agriscience in a statement to the Guardian said the product did not contain intentionally added PFAS.
The results are the latest in an ongoing dispute among federal regulators and independent researchers over the scale of PFAS contamination in US pesticides, and the response.
Bennett, a former EPA scientist, first discovered PFAS in pesticides in 2020, and alerted the agency and the Massachusetts department of environmental protection.
After conducting its own pesticide testing, the EPA concluded in early 2021 the chemicals were leaching from plastic containers in which they were stored, and said the contamination was limited to pesticides used in mosquitocides. The EPA issued an open letter to the industry reminding it that PFAS can leach, and asking companies to alert it if they were adding PFAS.
But the contamination continues. In late 2022, testing of insecticides used primarily for cotton, but which could potentially be used on food, found PFAS. That testing, along with CBD and Peer’s research, also detected PFAS compounds not known to be used or formed when the chemicals are added to plastic.
The discrepancy suggests the PFAS are not coming from plastic bins, but are added to pesticides by manufacturers, either as active or inactive ingredients, or are inadvertently inserted into products somewhere in the supply chain.
In December, the EPA banned some types of PFAS compounds – but not all – that can be used as inert ingredients in pesticide products, and said at the time that active ingredients are being reviewed. “EPA will share results of that investigation as soon as possible,” an agency spokesperson said. No results have been released, but an EPA spokesperson said the agency has “already analyzed some of the specific pesticides mentioned by CBD and Peer and plans to release those results in the coming weeks”.
PFAS have also previously been found in some widely used flea and tick pesticide products.
In a statement, the EPA said it “has taken significant scientific, regulatory and enforcement actions to address this issue, will continue to take such actions”.
However, it did not say it would halt sales of the pesticides while it investigatesBennett told the Guardian the EPA is “missing in action”.
“The fact that we are likely spraying pesticides with PFAS on food at a time when EPA acknowledges there is no safe level of some of these chemicals is nonsensical,” she added.