Pesticide Action Network UK has found 10 different PFAS pesticides were present in spices and a range of fruit & vegetables 

New research launched today has revealed that many common UK food items contain potentially harmful per-and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) pesticides.

Pesticide Action Network UK has found 10 different PFAS pesticides were present in spices and a range of fruit & vegetables including grapes, cherries, spinach and tomatoes.

PAN UK analysed the latest results from the UK government’s residue testing programme and found strawberries were the worst offenders with 95% of the 120 samples tested by the government in 2022 containing PFAS pesticides.

PFAS are a family of 10,000 chemicals branded as ‘forever chemicals’ because of their ability to persist in the environment and accumulate in the blood, bones and tissue of living organisms.

The campaign group added that estimates of the time it takes PFAS to fully degrade in the environment range from a decade to over 1,000 years.

Increasing the risk of illness and health problems

“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,” said Nick Mole, policy officer at PAN UK.

“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,” Mole added.

After strawberries, grapes, cherries and spinach were most frequently found to contain the pesticides, with over 42% of each having the chemicals detected.

The campaign group said there was relatively little UK research looking into the associated health problems of these chemicals. However, peer-reviewed studies conducted in other countries connected PFAS exposure to a range of problems including cancers and fertility issues.

The results analysed by PAN UK were taken from the latest data from the UK government’s Expert Committee on Pesticide Residues in Food, which tests roughly 2,500 one-kilogram samples of food from supermarket and other food outlet shelves.

The government strictly sets limits on pesticide residues

There are 25 PFAS pesticides currently in use in the UK, six of which are classified as highly hazardous, PAN UK said, adding the Environment Agency did not actively sample rivers for any of the 25 PFAS pesticides currently in use in the UK.

“Pesticides are the only chemicals that are designed to be toxic and then released intentionally into the environment,” said Mole. “Despite this, the UK government’s much-delayed plans for limiting the negative impacts of PFAS focus solely on industrial chemicals, ignoring pesticides entirely.”

A Defra spokesman said the government set strict limits on the pesticides residue levels in both food for consumers and feed for animals.

“These limits are set to protect public health and are set below the level considered to be safe for people to eat, as well as applying to both food produced in the UK and those imported from other countries,” the spokesman said.

“PFAS pesticides are absolutely unnecessary for growing food and are an easily avoidable source of PFAS pollution,” said Mole. “Getting rid of them would be a massive win for consumers, farmers and the environment.”