I'm a Lancashire health expert - these are the 'forever chemicals' in your foods and what they do to your body

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Strawberries came out worst on the foods tested.

A Lancashire health expert has outlined what ‘forever chemicals’ are in our foods, and what they’re doing to our bodies.

A 2022 report from the Environment Department’s advisory committee on pesticide residues and The Pesticide Action Network UK found toxic pesticides in a range of common fruits, vegetables and spices in the UK. The strawberries they tested came out the most affcted - in a sample of 120, 95 per cent contained PFA pesticides.

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Called “forever chemicals” because they can take centuries to break down in the environment, PFAs can accumulate in the bodies of living organisms and have been linked to severe health conditions.

What are ‘forever chemicals’?

For Dr Tapas Sen, a reader in nanomaterials chemistry at the University of Central Lancashire, forever chemicals are mostly per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS), which are highly toxic. “They are called forever chemicals as they don’t degrade or break down in the natural environment or our body,” he said.

Strawberries were the most-affected food tested.Strawberries were the most-affected food tested.
Strawberries were the most-affected food tested.

How might they harm the human body?

Forever chemicals have serious health risks, with direct links to cancer, thyroid disease, and fertility problems, as well as developmental defects in unborn children.

Dr Sen added: “These chemicals are widely used in our daily commodities, from cosmetics, food packaging, and dental floss, to non-stick frying pans and almost all non-strain waterproof products. They enter our environment via landfill waste, where they then spread through air and water. Their presence has been detected in food, marine products and drinking water.

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“The sub-nm [subnanometer] sizes of these chemicals help them to easily enter human cells and produce enormous harm.”

How dangerous is it to have high levels of forever chemicals in our bodies?

According to Dr Sen, there was a well-known court case against a major PFAS manufacturing company, DuPont, in 1998.

“This came about due to unusual medical conditions, such as bloated organs, blackened teeth, and tumours, discovered in farm animals in Parkersburg, West Virginia, associated with perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) used for non-stick frying pans and carpet flooring,” he said.

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“This case against DuPont created a huge public outrage and awareness of the risks of forever chemicals in water, and also inspired the 2019 Hollywood film, Dark Waters.

“PFOA is a class of PFAS, reported to be the cause of cancer and birth defects. It does not leave the bloodstream and slowly accumulates in the human body. An individual type PFAS of 100 ng/L can harm unborn babies and cause cancer in adults.

“PFAS also carry risks related to other diseases, including arthritis, liver, kidney disease, male fertility, hypersensitivity, and cardiovascular diseases.”

Do we need a tighter limit on forever chemicals?

Dr Shireen Kassam, NHS senior doctor and founder of Plant Based Health Professionals said that it’s concerning to learn that PFAS, or per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances are found in our food and environment, especially since we have very little data on the health impacts of exposure to these chemicals.

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“However, we need to consider that these chemicals also accumulate extensively in animal-sourced foods, as farm animals are exposed through food and water and these chemicals are easily stored in fat,” she added.

“When it comes to cancer risk, the data is clear, that despite issues around pesticide exposure, eating more fruits and vegetables, including beans, while limiting consumption of animal foods is associated with lower rates of cancer.

“For example, vegetarians and vegans have consistently been shown to have lower cancer rates, despite consuming more fruits and vegetables. This will in part be due to the positive impact of plant foods on reducing rates of obesity, and type 2 diabetes and promoting a healthier gut microbiome.

“Thus, the healthful properties of fruits and vegetables with their higher levels of vitamins and their anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties, still appear to outweigh any potential harm from pesticide exposure.

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“Although we should be campaigning to reduce pesticides in farming, this new data must not confuse common sense public-health messaging. When it is possible, it makes sense to choose organic products, but the cost is prohibitive for most. It will always be better to eat more fruits and vegetables for lowering rates of chronic conditions.”

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