Pesticides have come under increased scrutiny in recent years. From the discovery that the herbicide glyphosate is in 80 percent of Americans’ urine to concerns that weedkillers’ neonicotinoids in pesticides are killing off bees, scientists keep amassing alarming information about the products ostensibly intended to protect our food. Now a recent study by a nonprofit focused on protecting the environment reveals a new problem with pesticides: They are filled with forever chemicals, a class of compound that is typically used in nonstick and waterproof surfaces. These chemicals aren’t used as pesticides and shouldn’t be in them, a fact which at first puzzled scientists who discovered the contamination.
A recent study… reveals a new problem with pesticides: They are filled with forever chemicals.
The findings come courtesy of the Center for Biological Diversity in their March report on the most widely used pesticides in the United States. The authors find that “dangerous” PFAS (per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances) that are linked to cancer, kidney disease, high blood pressure, thyroid disease, autoimmune disease, birth defects and other serious health problems — even when people are only exposed at low levels.
PFAS are popularly known as “forever chemicals” because they never organically degrade, meaning once in the environment they linger there permanently. The authors of the report express concern that, because these PFAS were found in three out of the seven most commonly used pesticides, they could be covering our food and leaching into our water supply.
“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,” Nathan Donley, environmental health science director at the Center for Biological Diversity, told The Guardian. “The EPA has to take control of this situation and remove pesticide products that are contaminated with these extremely dangerous, persistent chemicals.”
This is not the first time that scientists have criticized the EPA for allegedly not doing enough to protect the public from PFAS. Last month a study by the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) tested water samples from across the United States and learned that more than two-thirds of them were contaminated with PFAS. Speaking with Salon at the time, the scientists behind that research argued that the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is not doing enough to monitor PFAS and protect the public.
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“Scientists, policymakers, and regulators struggle to keep pace with the rate of industry’s unchecked production and use of new PFAS. The detection of a significant number of PFAS not monitored by EPA is part a reflection of this reality.”
“The majority of unmonitored PFAS found in this study are newer generation PFAS that are being used as replacements for legacy PFAS like PFOA and PFOS,” study co-authors Dr. Katie Pelch and Dr. Anna Reade told Salon by email at the time. “Scientists, policymakers, and regulators struggle to keep pace with the rate of industry’s unchecked production and use of new PFAS. The detection of a significant number of PFAS not monitored by EPA is part a reflection of this reality.” Companies are particularly effective at keeping regulators at bay by constantly creating slightly different chemicals to replace old ones that are banned or restricted. This practice is known as regrettable substitution and last month Dr. Sara Brosché, Science Advisor with IPEN, told Salon that “every time one of these PFAS molecules are getting regulated, the industry just comes up with a new one that is slightly shorter or slightly different, but it still has basically the same function and the same health impacts.”
As Brosché explained to Salon at the time, PFAS are shiny, greasy chemicals that serve a number of purposes in products, from making fabrics resistant to stains to helping umbrellas slough off droplets of water. “It’s almost like it’s oil or something like that,” Brosché described to Salon. As The Guardian noted, though, it is unclear why pesticide companies would use PFAS, although one theory is that they are used as a dispersing agent. Either way, it is imperative to note that PFAS do not merely look unappetizing, but have been linked to serious health problems including pregnancy issues, lower sperm counts, liver disease and high blood pressure.
PFAS are also found in a wide range of commonly used products including microwavable popcorn bags, paper packaging, fast food wrappers, non-stick cookware, stain-resistant clothing, furniture coating and other commonly used products. Pesticides, meanwhile, are used throughout the United States to keep insects and other organisms that might destroy agriculture off of foods. In addition to the news that they may have PFAS, pesticides are controversial because they contain chemicals like glyphosate, which has been repeatedly linked in studies to diseases like cancer.
“What we know is that the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), which is a division of the World Health Organization (WHO), looked at the evidence in 2015,” Dr. Chadi Nabhan, author of the book “Toxic Exposure,” told Salon in February. After explaining how the organizations work, Nabhan added that “they determined that glyphosate is a probable human carcinogen. What that means is that there is a possibility that glyphosate could cause cancer in some patients. Most of the linkage based on the epidemiologic studies was with a disease called Non-Hodgkin lymphoma, which is a form of cancer that involves the lymph glands and the bone marrow.”