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Toxic “forever chemicals” present in most pesticides

Per-and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) are a class of over 12,000 chemical substances generally used to manufacture thousands of water-, stain- and heat-resistant products. These substances – known as “forever chemicals” – do not naturally break down and accumulate in both humans and the environment. A wide variety of recent scientific studies links them to major health problems such as cancer, birth defects, liver and kidney disease, autoimmune disorders, high cholesterol, and low immunity.

Now, a research team led by the Texas Tech University has checked ten insecticides which are mostly used on cotton, but can also be used on food and other crops, and discovered that seven of them contained PFAS, and six what the scientists labelled as “screamingly high” levels of PFOS (Perfluorooctanesulfonic acids), one of the most dangerous PFAS compounds. According to the study authors, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has known about these findings for over 18 months, but has not yet investigated the products or took any action against the manufacturers.

“We know PFOS is a carcinogen, we know it’s a deadly chemical and there’s no safe level in drinking water,” said Kyla Bennett, a former EPA official and science policy director at the non-profit organization Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER). “Our soil and water are now contaminated.”

While the EPA has not set limits for PFAS in pesticides, in June 2022 they lowered their advisory health limit in drinking water to 0.02 parts per trillion (ppt), a level so low as to suggest that no amount of exposure to these compounds is safe. The Texas Tech researchers found much higher levels of these toxic chemicals in most of the pesticides they analyzed, with a particular insecticide sporting a level as high as 19m ppt.

It is unclear what purpose PFAS in insecticides may serve, but the scientists believe that they could be used as a dispersing agent, helping the pesticide spread evenly. The presence of PFOS could be the result of either chemical companies illegally adding the compound or PFAS added to the fertilizers breaking down into PFOS. 

According to Bennett, there is little consumers can do to immediately protect themselves, besides eating organic foods. Unfortunately, many people do not have access to or can afford such healthier products. This leaves it up to the EPA to take faster and more decisive action to eliminate PFAS from pesticides.

“We have to get the EPA to stop allowing PFAS in pesticides. We’ve got a toxic chemical in them that doesn’t need to be there, and pesticides are bad enough on their own without adding another carcinogen,” Bennett concluded.

The study is published in the Journal of Hazardous Materials Letters.

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By Andrei Ionescu, Staff Writer

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