EFSA opinion on two environmental pollutants (PFOS and PFOA) present in food

Two environmentally-persistent chemical compounds – perfluorooctane sulfonate (PFOS) and perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) – are being increasingly found in the environment, and the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) was asked to evaluate the importance of food to human exposure to these substances. According to EFSA’s Contaminants (CONTAM) Panel, food, in particular fish and fishery products seem to be a significant source of exposure to these contaminants. For PFOA, other non-food sources, such as indoor air pollution, also contribute to total exposure. EFSA’s CONTAM Panel acknowledged that there were significant data gaps on issues such as the contribution of different foodstuffs to human exposure and that further research and data collection would be necessary. Based on the available data, the Panel established Tolerable Daily Intakes (TDI) for both PFOS and PFOA and concluded that the general population in Europe is unlikely to suffer negative health effects from dietary exposure to these chemicals. However, high consumers of fish may be slightly exceeding the TDI for PFOS. 

PFOS and PFOA, two man-made chemicals, are increasingly being found in the food chain owing to environmental pollution from industrial practices. These substances have been widely used in industrial and consumer applications, including stain- and water-resistant coatings for fabrics and carpets, oil-resistant coatings for paper products approved for food, fire-fighting foams, floor polishes and insecticides. As these chemicals can accumulate in the body, it can take many years for the body to eliminate them.

Exposure data vary but fish seem to be an important source of human exposure to PFOS and also contribute to human exposure to PFOA. These findings may however be influenced by an over-representation of studies from polluted areas amongst the very limited data available. Validated analytical methods should be developed and occurrence data for PFOS/PFOA in foods and feeding stuffs be collected in order to provide the basis for a more refined risk assessment, the Panel said. Environmental exposure through air and water also seems to play a significant role for PFOS, and even more so for PFOA. Other food-related exposure routes exist, though to a lesser extent, such as drinking water for both PFOS and PFOA and food packaging material (e.g. microwave popcorn bags), and cookware (non-stick coatings) in the case of PFOA.

High exposure to PFOS and PFOA can have a harmful impact on health and can damage the liver, cause developmental and possibly reproductive problems. Certain laboratory experiments on rats have indicated some potential to promote cancer but it is not clear if these results have implications for human health.

Whilst a lack of consistent data precluded from the Panel from making a comprehensive risk assessment, experts considered there to be sufficient scientific data to establish a TDI for both PFOS and PFOA. For PFOS, the Panel established a TDI of 150 nanograms per kilogram of body weight per day and for PFOA 1.5 micrograms (1,500 nanograms) per kilogram of body weight per day.

The Panel concluded that the general population in Europe is unlikely to suffer negative health effects from PFOS and PFOA as the dietary exposure to these chemicals is below their respective TDIs, but noted that high consumers of fish might slightly exceed the TDI for PFOS. The Panel called for further research and data collection on PFOS/PFOA presence in foods and feeding stuffs in order to assess their relative contribution to human dietary exposure. Data on PFOS, PFOA and other perfluoroalkylated substances (PFAS ) is needed, particularly in order to monitor exposure trends.

EFSA has published several opinions covering other environmental pollutants found in food, namely methyl mercury , dioxins, dioxin-like PCBs and non-dioxin like PCBs .

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