‘Forever chemicals’ in fruit and veg – what they do to your body and how to avoid them

By Staff 8 Min Read

A new report has found that ‘forever chemicals’ are being found in fruit and vegetables – but what are they and how do they impact your health? Health experts share everything you need to know

The so-called ‘forever chemicals’ – officially known as PFA chemicals – are popping up in our vegetables, spices and fruits, posing a potential threat to public health according to new research findings.

A report by the Environment Department’s advisory committee on pesticide residues (PRiF) alongside The Pesticide Action Network UK (Pan UK), which pored over testing data, found that a staggering 95 per cent of 120 strawberry samples tested were laced with PFA pesticides making them the most contaminated food item.

These forever chemicals, notorious for taking ages to decompose in nature, can accumulate in the human body, triggering serious health issues, reports Nottinghamshire Live. Wondering what these forever chemicals in food actually do to you? Health experts explain all…

What exactly are ‘forever chemicals’?

For Dr Tapas Sen, a nanomaterials chemistry expert at the University of Central Lancashire, forever chemicals are primarily per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS), infamous for their toxicity. “They are called forever chemicals as they don’t degrade or break down in the natural environment or our body,” he explains.

And the damage to the human body?

The health hazards of forever chemicals are alarming, with concrete connections to cancers, thyroid disorders, and fertility hitches, not to mention developmental issues in foetuses. He says: “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. 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 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.

“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, an NHS senior doctor and founder of Plant Based Health Professionals, voiced her concerns about the presence of PFAS, or per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, in our food and environment, highlighting the scant data on the health impacts of these chemical exposures.

“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 explained. “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.”

“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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