Questions and Answers on Perfluorinated chemicals in Food

Question 1: What are Perfluorinated chemicals (PFCs)?

Answer 1: Perfluorinated chemicals (PFCs) are man-made chemicals that include perfluorooctane sulfonate (PFOS), perfluorooctanoate (PFOA) and perfluorooctanesulfonamides (PFOSA). PFCs are used in a wide variety of industrial and consumer products such as adhesives, cosmetics, cleaning products, and fire fighting foams. Also, PFCs are used in water, stain, and oil repellent coatings for fabrics and paper.

Question 2: How do PFCs get into foods?

Answer 2: There are various routes by which PFCs can enter food. Food-producing animals or plants may bioaccumulate perfluorinated chemicals that are present in the air, water, soil, or, in the case of animals, feed. Studies Footnote 1,Footnote 2 conducted by Health Canada's Food Research Division have demonstrated that food packaging is not a significant source of some PFCs, such as PFOA and PFOS, in food.

Question 3: What foods are PFCs most commonly found in?

Answer 3: Health Canada and the United Kingdom Food Standards Agency have each conducted dietary surveys of PFCs in food. Data indicate that some food-producing animals bioaccumulate and bioconcentrate PFCs and that food plants may also accumulate PFCs. The range of foods surveyed in the Canadian Total Diet Study (TDS)
Footnote 1,Footnote 2 include: meat, fish, fast foods, and food items prepared in their packaging. At the present time, there are insufficient data to determine with certainty if there are certain types of foods that PFCs are most commonly found in.

Question 4: Does cooking reduce the amount of PFCs in food?

Answer 4: One study, in which Health Canada's Food Research Division was involved, examined how cooking influenced the PFC concentration in food. Baking, boiling, and frying fish and shellfish reduced PFC concentrations (that were in the parts per billion range) in raw fish by 54 to 100%.

Question 5: What are the concentrations of PFCs found in foods in other countries?

Answer 5: Health Canada and the United Kingdom Food Standards Agency are currently the only government agencies that have measured the concentrations of PFCs in some foods. The PFC levels in foods that are commercially sold in Canada are within a similar range as others reported. These values are quite low, in the order of nanograms per gram (ng/g), or equivalent to parts per billion (ppb).

Question 6: Would exposure to PFCs in food affect my health?

Answer 6: Exposure to certain PFCs, in particular PFOS and PFOA, has been associated with various adverse health effects in laboratory animals, including immune, liver and thyroid function. Based on the results of the 2004 TDS conducted by Health Canada's Food Research Division, the estimated dietary intake in Canada of PFAs (perfluorinated acids) was 4.0 ng/kg bw/day, which is approximately six times greater than the dietary intake of PFOSAs analyzed in the same 2004 TDS samples. Nonetheless, estimated dietary intakes of PFCs for Canadians are at least 10000 times less than doses associated with these adverse health effects in laboratory animals; therefore, exposure to PFCs in food is not expected to pose a significant risk to human health.

Question 7: What are the greatest sources of human exposure to PFCs?

Answer 7: PFCs have been detected throughout the world in soil, water, air, dust, sewage sludge, sediment, and food; hence, humans may be exposed to PFCs through a variety of different routes. Much is still unknown about the sources and pathways of human exposure to these chemicals, but the widespread occurrence of PFCs in the blood of children and adults in North American suggests that exposure occurs through sources common to all age groups. Studies conducted by Health Canada illustrate that food consumption may be a significant route of exposure to this family of compounds, but exposure from food is still well below what is considered unsafe to human health.

Question 8: These chemicals have been used in Canada for many years - why are we only hearing about them now?

Answer 8: PFCs have been used worldwide for a relatively short period of time, approximately the last 50 years, and were considered biologically inactive until recently. Several years ago when Environment Canada and Health Canada recognized the ability of PFCs to persist in the environment, both organizations began researching these compounds. Both departments have since conducted environmental and human health risk assessments on PFCs, the results of which have been released to the public. Furthermore, Health Canada has only recently compiled sufficient data to provide meaningful comments on Canadian's exposure to PFCs from food and how the concentrations of PFCs in food are changing over time.

Question 9: Are PFCs regulated in Canada?

Answer 9: The Government of Canada added PFOS, its salts, and its precursors to the  Toxic Substances List under Schedule 1 of the Canadian Environmental Protection Act, 1999 because PFOS, its salts, and its precursors are entering the environment in a quantity, concentration, or under conditions that have or may have an immediate or long-term harmful effect on the environment or its biological diversity. A risk management strategy that outlines Environment Canada's proposed actions to prevent the reintroduction of PFOS into the Canadian market and reduce or eliminate future PFOS releases to the environment has been developed. Environment Canada is also working with other countries to encourage the reduction and eventual elimination of PFOS manufacturing and use worldwide.

Question 10: Why is only PFOS, and not other PFCs, included in the Toxic Substances List of the Canadian Environmental Protection Act, 1999?

Answer 10: PFOS has been widely used throughout Canada and the world and is highly persistent in the environment. As a result, research has focussed on understanding this chemical in particular. More recently, other PFCs have begun to be studied and additional PFCs may be regulated under the Canadian Environmental Protection Act in the future, as required.

Question 11: Are other countries regulating PFCs?

Answer 11: Yes. The United States, United Kingdom, European Union, Norway, Sweden, and Australia, as well as several international groups, are developing strategies to reduce PFC emissions and find safer alternatives to its use. Details on each country's or group's individual strategy can be found in Section 6.0 of Environment Canada's risk management strategy for PFOS, its salts, and precursors.

Additional Resources:

  • Perfluorinated Chemicals (PFCs)
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