‘Forever chemicals’ detected in UK food, prompting concerns regarding impact on human health

Wednesday 10th April 2024

New research launched today reveals that many common UK food items contain PFAS pesticides. Pesticide Action Network UK (PAN UK) analysed the latest results from the UK government’s residue testing programme, finding that ten different PFAS pesticides were present in spices and a range of fruit and vegetables including grapes, cherries spinach and tomatoes. Strawberries were found to be the worst offenders, with 95% of the 120 samples tested by the government in 2022 containing PFAS pesticides.

A family of roughly 10,000 chemicals, PFAS have been branded as ‘forever chemicals’ because of their ability to persist in the environment and accumulate in the blood, bones and tissue of living organisms, including humans. Estimates of the time it takes PFAS to fully degrade in the environment range from a decade to over 1,000 years. While they are generally used in household products such as non-stick cookware, certain pesticides contain PFAS which then make it into human bodies via diet.

Nick Mole from PAN UK said, “Given the growing body of evidence linking PFAS to serious diseases such as cancer, it is deeply worrying that UK consumers are being left with no choice but to ingest these chemicals, some of which may remain in their bodies long into the future. With some plastic food packaging also contaminated with PFAS, and PFAS present in UK drinking water and soil, we urgently need to develop a better understanding of the health risks associated with ingesting these ‘forever chemicals’ and do everything we can to exclude them from the food chain.”

Produce found to contain PFAS pesticidesTotal number of samples tested by UK government Percentage of samples containing PFAS pesticides (all rounded down)

Despite evidence that ‘forever chemicals’ are already present in the majority of people’s blood, there is relatively little UK research looking into the associated health problems – a situation often used by the government and chemicals industry to delay action. However, peer-reviewed studies conducted in other countries have connected PFAS exposure to a range of serious health problems including an increased risk of cancer and decreases in both fertility and the immune system’s ability to fight infections. There is particular concern over childhood exposure since PFAS has also been linked to behavioural changes as well as developmental effects or delays in children, including low birth weight and accelerated puberty.

The results analysed by PAN UK were taken from the latest data from the UK Government’s Expert Committee on Pesticide Residues in Food (PRiF) which tests roughly 2,500 one-kilogram samples of food each year. Food items are taken from the shelves of supermarkets and other food outlets across Great Britain, meaning that all food tested was originally destined to be purchased and eaten by ordinary consumers.

PAN UK’s findings mirror recent research revealing that residues of 31 different PFAS pesticides were detected in European fruit and vegetables between 2011 and 2021. Like the UK, strawberries were found to be the most likely EU-grown produce to contain ‘forever chemicals’ with a high of 37% in 2021. However, this figure is dwarfed by its UK equivalent which shows that, of the 55 samples of UK-grown strawberries tested in 2022, 91% contained residues of PFAS pesticides.

There are 25 PFAS pesticides currently in use in the UK, six of which are classified as ‘Highly Hazardous’. The list includes the insecticide lambda-cyhalothrin which, in addition to being a ‘forever chemical’, is highly toxic to both humans and bees. In 2022, 9,200 kg of lambda-cyhalothrin was applied to 1.69 million hectares of UK land, the equivalent of eleven times the size of Greater London. Farmers are generally unaware that they are spraying ‘forever chemicals’ on their crops because there is no information on the label.

The Environment Agency does not actively sample rivers for any of the 25 PFAS pesticides currently in use in the UK, so the extent to which these chemicals are running off agricultural fields to contaminate rivers and other water sources remains unknown.

Mole added, “Pesticides are the only chemicals that are designed to be toxic and then released intentionally into the environment. Despite this, the UK government’s much-delayed plans for limiting the negative impacts of PFAS focus solely on industrial chemicals, ignoring pesticides entirely. PFAS pesticides are absolutely unnecessary for growing food and are an easily avoidable source of PFAS pollution. Getting rid of them would be a massive win for consumers, farmers and the environment.”

Dr Shubhi Sharma from CHEM Trust said: “PFAS are a group of entirely human-made chemicals that didn’t exist on the planet a century ago and have now contaminated every single corner. No one gave their consent to be exposed to these harmful chemicals, we haven’t had the choice to opt out, and now we have to live with this toxic legacy for decades to come. The very least we can do is to stop adding to this toxic burden by banning the use of PFAS as a group”.

PAN UK is urging the UK government to urgently ban the 25 PFAS pesticides currently in use and increase support for farmers to help them end their reliance on chemicals and adopt safer and more sustainable alternatives. The organisation is also echoing health and environment NGOs that are calling for the UK to work towards achieving a PFAS-free economy by 2035.

David Smith, Advocacy and Social Change Officer at Buglife, added: “This research further shows the need to reduce our reliance on chemicals and ensure we do more to protect the health of the environment and ourselves. While the impacts of PFAS on invertebrates are not fully understood, studies suggest exposure can impact a wide range of species. The Government must bring forward new pre-approval tests and processes for pesticides that protect people, bees, pollinators, and other beneficial invertebrates from all ingredients in pesticides.”