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Research: ‘Forever chemicals’ found in UK fruit and vegetables
Melissa Bradshaw

Melissa Bradshaw

10 April 2024

Research: ‘Forever chemicals’ found in UK fruit and vegetables

New UK-based research from the Pesticide Action Network (PAN) has found that many common fruits and vegetables contain per- and poly-fluoroalkyl (PFAS) pesticides. PAN analysed results from the UK government’s residue testing programme, finding that ten different PFAS pesticides were present in a range of fruits and vegetables including grapes, cherries, strawberries, spinach and tomatoes, as well as spices. Strawberries were found to be most impacted – 95% of the 120 strawberry samples tested in 2022 contained PFAS pesticides. This was followed by 61% of 109 grape samples and 56% of 121 cherry samples. The programme was carried out by the government’s Expert Committee on Pesticide Residues in Food (PRIF), which tests around 2,500 1kg samples of food each year. Food items were taken from the shelves of supermarkets and other food outlets across Britain, meaning that all food tested would originally have been purchased by ordinary consumers. PFAS encompasses around 10,000 chemicals, branded ‘forever chemicals’ due to their ability to remain in the environment and accumulate in the blood, bones and tissues of living organisms. They are thought to require anywhere from a decade to over 1,000 years to fully degrade in the environment. While further UK research is needed to assess the health problems associated with PFAS chemicals, studies conducted in other countries have linked PFAS exposure to a range of serious health problems including increased risk of cancer, decreases in fertility and in immune system function. Childhood exposure is of particular concern, as research has connected PFAS to developmental effects or delays in children, including low birth weight and accelerated puberty. PAN UK’s findings mirror recent research revealing that residues of 31 different PFAS pesticides were detected in European fruit and vegetables between 2011 and 2021. Just as was discovered in the UK, strawberries were revealed to be the most likely EU-grown produce to contain ‘forever chemicals’ with a high of 37% in 2021 – a figure dwarfed by its UK equivalent, which detected PFAS residues in over 90% of UK-grown strawberry samples. There are 25 PFAS pesticides currently used in the UK, six of which are classified as ‘Highly Hazardous’. These include the insecticide lambda-cyhalothrin, which is toxic to humans and bees. Data from Fera UK found that lambda-cyhalothrin was applied to 1.69 million hectares of UK land in 2022. PAN UK is urging the government to ban these 25 PFAS pesticides and increase support for farmers – who may be unaware that these chemicals are in the pesticides being used – and help them to adopt safer, more sustainable practices. Nick Mole, policy officer at PAN UK, said that PFAS pesticides are “absolutely unnecessary” for growing food, adding that the UK government’s “much-delayed plans” for limiting the negative impacts of PFAS focus solely on industrial chemicals and “ignore pesticides entirely”. He commented: “Given the growing body of evidence linking PFAS to serious diseases such as cancer, it is deeply worrying that UK consumers are being left with no choice but to ingest these chemicals, some of which may remain in their bodies long into the future”. “With some plastic food packaging also contaminated with PFAS, and PFAS present in UK drinking water and soil, we urgently need to develop a better understanding of the health risks associated with ingesting these ‘forever chemicals’ and do everything we can to exclude them from the food chain.”

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