Seven out of eight US kale samples recently tested for toxic PFAS “forever chemicals” contained high levels of the compounds.
The testing looked at conventional and organic kale bought at grocery stores across the country, and comes after Food and Drug Administration analyses conducted between 2019 and 2021 found no PFAS contamination.
The findings “stunned” researchers who expected to find low levels of the chemicals, said Robert Verkerk, founder of the Alliance for Natural Health non-profit, which produced the paper.
“It’s pretty scary and there’s no easy solution,” he said, adding that the findings highlight the need for the FDA to implement a more robust PFAS testing program for the nation’s food supply.
PFAS are a class of about 15,000 compounds typically used to make products across dozens of industries resistant to water, stains and heat. They are called “forever chemicals” because they do not naturally break down, and are linked to cancer, kidney disease, liver conditions, immune disorders, birth defects and other serious health problems.
The report comes amid growing calls for stronger action around PFAS-contaminated food, which is considered to be the most significant exposure route to the chemicals. In recent months, independent research has found PFAS in protein powders, juice drinks and other food products.
Studies have previously found PFAS in vegetables in fields where sewage sludge was laid as an alternative to fertilizer, and the FDA claimed it had “no indication” of a health threat in PFAS it found in vegetables grown in 2018 near a North Carolina PFAS manufacturing plant.
The new paper found levels as high as 250 parts per trillion (ppt), though no limits for PFAS in food exist in the US. However, the Environmental Protection Agency has found that virtually no amount of exposure to some PFAS compounds in drinking water is safe.
The kale was sent to an EPA-certified lab and tested with the same method used by the FDA. Bagged and loose kale was bought at Stop & Shop, Whole Foods, Weis and Publix food markets. Among the brands that showed PFAS contamination were Nature’s Promise Organic, GreenWise, By Nature and Palmetto Gardens. Only loose kale from Baker Farms did not contain the chemicals.
Organic kale had higher levels of PFAS, which Verkerk said was “a bit of a shock finding”. He added that the group tested kale because it “wanted to look at an archetypal healthy vegetable” that was high in protein, which PFAS compounds bind to. The source of the contamination is unclear, but Verkerk said he suspected tainted water was probably to blame, though it was also possible the kale was grown in fields where sludge was spread.
The European Union tolerable weekly intake guideline for PFAS consumption in food recommends no more than the amount found in the equivalent of about two servings of kale bought from Publix, which the report called “disturbing”.
Verkerk said he is unsure why the FDA did not find any PFAS in kale in its most recent testing, though the agency’s sampling has historically been limited to just a few compounds. Its method for testing food has also drawn criticism from scientists who say it only detects extremely high levels of PFAS contamination, and misses levels that are lower but still dangerous.
The Alliance for Natural Health plans to test more vegetables and foods, and pressure the FDA to expand and improve its sampling program.
“We have analyzed all of their raw data and it is far too limited,” Verkerk said. “For them to come out and say the vast majority of the food supply is safe … based on what we would argue is far too limited amounts of data – that’s a very rash conclusion that could be seriously misleading to the public.”