How do lethal PFA chemicals enter your body? (Hint: look in the kitchen)

The hazardous chemical PFA, generally found in non-stick cookware, is still unregulated in India

By Meenakshi Sushma
Published: Thursday 13 June 2019
Cookware is a major source through which PFA chemicals enter the human body. Photo: Getty Images

Do you use non-stick cookware? They may make your cooking hassle-free but have a flip side too. Per- and Polyfluoroalkyl (PFAs), a chemical on non-stick cookware among many other things, has made its way into the human food chain, according to the United States Food and Drug Administration (FDA). 

PFAs, currently unregulated in India, are a group of artificial chemicals used in many items of daily use. apart from cookware, they are found in resistant fabrics used for cleaning, paints and food packaging. 

The chemicals can be fatal for human beings, travelling through bloodstreams and collecting in the kidney and liver. Continuous deposition can lead to dysfunction of organs or cancer after a period.

More than 98 per cent of blood samples collected in the US were contaminated with PFA, according to the report.

In the US, among 91 samples of food (fruits, vegetables, baked products, meat and seafood) tested by the FDA, PFAs were found in 14. The chemical comes in contact with food through contaminated ground water, soil and air, apart from the household items, the FDA found.

The FDA experience

The American food regulator in 2019 took milk samples from two dairy farms near a US Air Force Base with contaminated groundwater in New Mexico. The milk produced by the cow was contaminated by PFA.

In a similar study in 2013, all 42 cranberry samples examined had detectable levels of PFA contamination. The villain this time was groundwater.

The FDA found incredibly high levels of PFA contamination in chocolate cake with icing — 17,640 parts per trillion (ppt). The reason being cited: Grease-proof paper used to wrap the cake for take-aways and storage, according to media reports.

In total, the FDA tested food samples for 16 PFA varieties across eight Mid-Atlantic American states, including North Carolina, West Virginia, Delaware and Kentucky.

The FDA reportedly detected PFAs in approximately half of the meat and seafood products, Perfluoroheptanoic Acid (PFPeA) in chocolate milk and high levels in chocolate cake with icing, Pentafluorobenzoic acid (PFBA) in pineapple, and Perfluorohexanesulphonic acid (PFHxS) in sweet potatoes.

PFA in India

As far as India is concerned, the situation is worse as PFAs are unregulated, states the 2019 India PFAS situation Report, published by IPEN, a Sweden-based non-profit organisation. 

The report clearly states that India joined as a party to the Stockholm Convention in 2006 and in turn, the Convention included India’s name to the PFA global restriction list in 2009. But, India has not accepted this amendment till now.

IPEN researchers also conducted a small case study in Delhi. They found that non-stick cookware were sold under two categories: one was PFOA-coated and the other was PFOA-free cookware. PFOA is Perfluorooctanoic Acid and is known as an emerging health concern.

“Brands which sell PFOA-free cookware, usually label the product. But this label is not completely fool-proof and it is likely that many of these manufacturers are simply using fluoropolymers made without using PFOA,” state the researchers.

Fluorine-free alternatives include silicone-, ceramic- or enamel-based coatings. More research is required to be done in India to establish the constitution and shifts in the coated cookware market, states the report.

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