EWG Says 'Forever Chemicals' Contaminate Seafood. They're Wrong.

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The Environmental Working Group (EWG) is once again warning consumers that their food may be tainted by "forever chemicals." Let's take a look at all the important details the activist group left out.

I have to give credit where credit is due. The activists at EWG know how to write excellent headlines. In a July 6 news release, for example, EWG warned its readers that the FDA had found “Canned clams contaminated with extremely high levels of [a] common ‘forever chemical.’” The sub-headline was even more incendiary: “Extremely highly levels of a common 'forever chemical' linked to cancer have been detected in canned clams.” [1]

As it's wont to do, EWG has taken uncontroversial facts surrounding a potential health risk and used them to fuel an exaggerate health scare. Let's briefly recount what the FDA actually found, then dismember EWG's hyperbolic version of events.

Toxic clams?

The FDA monitors the safety of our food supply, in part, through its ongoing Total Diet Study (TDS), which estimates the levels of nutrients and contaminants in the products Americans consume. The results are used to calculate how much of each nutrient and contaminate the total US population and several sub-populations are exposed to.

The agency conducted additional seafood testing this time around because they initially detected elevated levels of chemicals called per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS). The measurements were “higher in this survey than we have found in the overall TDS samples,” the FDA explained on July 6. The press release went on to note that such results aren't surprising “as seafood may be at increased risk for PFAS contamination from the environment.”

Within two weeks, Bumble Bee Foods and Crown Prince, the makers of the two products containing elevated levels of a PFAS called perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) issued voluntary recalls.

Everything EWG left out

Now, let's flesh out the story with important context EWG ignored. First things first, the recalls were issued “out of an abundance of caution,” as Bumble Bee Foods put it. EWG complained about “extremely high levels” of PFOA, implying that there was a serious health risk lurking in these canned clams. That wasn't the case. “To date there have been no reports of illnesses associated with this recalled product,” Bumble Bee's press release continued.

Nobody expected acute exposure to traces of PFAS to make consumers sick; chronic—repeated, long-term—exposure is the concern (more on that below), but EWG failed to make this crucial distinction. The activist group simply reported that “extremely high” levels of PFOA had been found in specific shipments of canned clams, then claimed that “PFAS have been linked to serious health concerns ...” They didn't mention that most of the tested samples fell below the method detection limit (MDL), meaning the levels were so low the FDA couldn't say with confidence that the chemicals were even present.

In sum, the regulatory system functioned as it was supposed to. A potential risk was identified and eliminated as a result of routine surveillance; nobody experienced any harm. EWG's hyperbole aside, this case illustrates just how safe the US food supply is.

Deadly PFAS everywhere?

Let's return to EWG's claim that PFAS exposure “has been linked to serious health concerns, including cancer, harm to fetal development and reduced vaccine effectiveness.” This is factual but not truthful. Some studies have indeed linked PFAS to these outcomes, but many more haven't. For example, according to our resident toxicologist Susan Goldhaber, eight studies have found that pregnant women with higher blood levels of PFOA give birth to lower-weight babies. This is only an association, not evidence of a causal relationship, though the more important point is that 23 other studies showed no link between PFOA exposure and low birth weight.

The PFOA-cancer link follows a similar plot line. 14 studies have looked at this possible association; they have only found a connection between prostate cancer and PFAS exposure, and only “at the highest levels of PFOA exposure for long periods of time,” Goldhaber added. The CDC's Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR) agrees, reporting in a May 2021 toxicological profile of PFAS that

In the studies examined, workers have the highest potential exposure to a specific perfluoroalkyl, followed by the highly-exposed residents such as residents in the Mid-Ohio Valley who have elevated levels of PFOA and background levels of other perfluoroalkyls, and then the general population.

The vast majority of Americans, including those of us who eat canned clams, fall into the “general population” category with the lowest potential exposure.

The EPA hasn't established a standard for PFOA in food, but its current threshold for the chemical in water is a minuscule 0.004 parts per trillion (ppt). The FDA describes such measurements as “extremely low levels.” The rest of us can just call EPA's standard what it is—stupid. The agency cited research linking higher blood levels of PFOA in mothers and their children to lower antibody responses to diphtheria and tetanus vaccines as justification, but that association hasn't been found in other studies. [2] More importantly, PFOA exposure isn't linked to higher rates of infectious diseases. The ATSDR also reported last year:

Based on a number of factors the available epidemiological studies suggest associations between perfluoroalkyl exposure and several health outcomes; however, cause-and-effect relationships have not been established for these outcomes … [my emphasis]

The activists at EWG will continue to churn out blog posts and press releases warning that “We need to turn off the tap of PFAS pollution if we want to protect our food supplies from these toxic forever chemicals.” What they won't do is carefully define their terms, explain the nuances involved in gathering exposure data, or demonstrate a causal connection between PFAS and any potential health risks.

Activists exist to gin up public concern. Don't take the bait. Your life will be much more pleasant that way.


[1] The phrase “forever chemical” is marketing language activist groups and sloppy news outlets employ to scare people. PFAS are “long lasting chemicals,” the EPA says, but the presence of a substance isn't evidence that it's harmful, as we've seen.

[2] The EPA's new PFOA drinking water limit is a "health advisory," not an enforceable regulatory standard, but it's still unscientific. See Susan Goldhaber's recent article on the topic to learn more.