'Forever chemicals' linked to cancer found in more than half of UK fruit and veg: Worst offenders REVEALED

Grocer handling strawberries

More than 50 percent of UK samples tested contained toxic PFA pesticides

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Adam Chapman

By Adam Chapman

Published: 09/04/2024

- 12:15
  • 56.4 percent of UK samples tested contained toxic pesticides
  • Strawberries topped the list, with 95 percent containing forever chemicals
  • PFA chemicals have been linked to cancer and other serious health conditions
  • Pan UK is urging the Government to ban the 25 PFA pesticides currently in use

Toxic forever chemicals have been found in more than half of UK fruit and vegetables, sparking a public health warning from campaigners.

Poly and perfluoroalkyl substances (PFAs) used in some pesticides, were identified in a range of foods in 2022, according to results from the latest Government testing.

Called “forever chemicals” because they can take centuries to break down in the environment, PFAs can accumulate in the bodies of living organisms and have been linked to severe health conditions, such as cancer and high cholesterol.

More than 3,300 samples of food and drink available in the UK supply chain were tested for residues of around 401 pesticides in 2022, according to a report from the Environment Department’s advisory committee on pesticide residues (PRiF).

The Pesticide Action Network UK (Pan UK), which analysed the test results, found strawberries to be the worst offender, with 95 percent of 120 test samples containing PFA pesticides.

This was followed by 61 percent of the 109 grape samples tested, 56% of the 121 cherry samples, 42 percent of the 96 spinach samples and 38 percent of the 96 tomato samples.

  • Strawberries topped the list, with 95 percent containing forever chemicals, followed by grapes

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Meanwhile, peaches, cucumbers, apricots and beans all saw at least 15 percent of samples containing PFAs, the analysis showed.

The PRiF report said that 56.4 percent of samples tested contained a residue of pesticides they were testing, but this was below the maximum residue level (MRL) allowed in food by law.

Meanwhile, 1.8 percent of the samples contained a pesticide residue above this legal level.

The report said the UK’s Health and Safety Executive (HSE) conducts a risk assessment of all pesticide residues found in the testing programme and takes further action if risks to health are identified.

“It is useful to note, even when a food contains a residue above the MRL, HSE rarely finds any likely risk to the health of the people who have eaten the food,” it said.

However, Pan UK said MRLs do not guarantee the quantity of pesticide found in the food is safe and do not take into account the many other routes of potential PFA exposure, such as plastic food packaging, drinking water and a wide range of household products.

Nick Mole, from Pan UK, said: “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.

“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.”

Pan UK is urging the Government to ban the 25 PFA pesticides currently in use in Britain, six of which are classified as “highly hazardous”.

The organisation said ministers should also increase support for farmers to help them end their reliance on chemicals and adopt safer, more sustainable alternatives.

Mr Mole said: “The UK government’s much-delayed plans for limiting the negative impacts of PFAs focus solely on industrial chemicals, ignoring pesticides entirely.

“PFA pesticides are absolutely unnecessary for growing food and are an easily avoidable source of PFA pollution.

“Getting rid of them would be a massive win for consumers, farmers and the environment.”

Doctor Shubhi Sharma, from Chem Trust, which campaigns to protect humans and animals from harmful chemicals, said: “PFAs are a group of entirely human-made chemicals that didn’t exist on the planet a century ago and have now contaminated every single corner.

“No-one gave their consent to be exposed to these harmful chemicals, we haven’t had the choice to opt out, and now we have to live with this toxic legacy for decades to come.

“The very least we can do is to stop adding to this toxic burden by banning the use of PFAs as a group”.

What do we know about the link to cancer?

Forever chemicals, known as PFAs, have been linked to higher rates of cancers, including kidney, prostate and breast cancer.

However, it's hard to draw a definitive link between the toxic chemicals and the incidence of cancer.

Research is ongoing to understand how the substances affect the body, but exposure to the chemicals, especially at high levels, is thought to alter biological pathways.

Last year, researchers at the Yale School of Public Health exposed colon cancer cells to (PFAS), which caused the cells to migrate to new positions, suggesting they could have a similar effect in the human body, in a process known as metastasis. The full in vitro study was published in the Environmental Science & Technology.

Although animal studies let scientists test the effect of individual substances on living models, they don’t completely match the human body. It’s also common for these studies to use exposure levels far higher than those that people experience.

The limited human studies into PFAS and cancer are affected by other factors, like people’s genetics, lifestyles and exposure to different chemicals. That makes it difficult to draw a definitive link.

After reviewing new studies at the end of last year, the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) moved PFOA (two forever chemicals no longer produced in the UK) from Group 2B (possibly carcinogenic) to Group 1 (carcinogenic).

The evidence that PFOA can cause cancer still isn’t as strong as the evidence we have for some other things classified in Group 1, but the change shows just how important research is for understanding cancer risk.

It’s essential more research is done to help improve our understanding of these chemicals and their health impacts.

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