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Daily News Blog

06
Oct

Despite EPA Safety Assurances, Alarming Levels of PFAS Found in Commonly Used Pesticides

(Beyond Pesticides, October 6, 2022) A new study finds alarmingly high levels of PFAS (Per- and Polyfluoroalkyl Substances) “forever chemicals” in commonly used pesticides, calling into question assurances from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) that contamination is limited to storage containers. For some pesticides, PFAS levels are nearly one billion times higher than the EPA’s recently updated Health Advisory for the PFAS chemical PFOS. “If the intent was to spread PFAS contamination across the globe there would be few more effective methods than lacing pesticides with PFAS,” said Kyla Bennett, PhD, of the nonprofit Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility. “These findings point to an appalling regulatory breakdown by EPA.”

A team of researchers based in Texas, including scientists from Texas Tech and the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) Cropping Systems Research Laboratory, participated in the study published in the Journal of Hazardous Materials Letters. Ten different formulated pesticide products were tested for 24 different PFAS substances. The pesticide products selected were determined based on unexpected PFAS contamination at USDA’s research facility. During the course of conducting a separate study on plant uptake of PFAS, detectable levels of PFAS were found in plants intended to be used as unexposed controls. Preliminary analysis determined that water, potting soil, and fertilizers on site did not contain PFAS, but soil, other research plants, and certain insecticides did.

Although the brand names of the pesticides tested were not provided, of the ten products, active ingredients of those found to contain PFAS include: abamectin, novaluron, mineral (petroleum) oil, imidacloprid, spiromesifen, and malathion. Those without PFAS detection include products with the active ingredients Beauveria bassiana, pyridalyl, spinosad, and spinetoram/sulfoxaflor.

The detection of any level of PFAS is cause for concern. The chemicals have been linked to cancer, liver damage, birth and developmental problems, reduced fertility, and asthma, among a range of other adverse health effects. As new drinking water health advisories issued by EPA show, PFAS levels as low as .02 parts per trillion (ppt) have the potential cause adverse health effects for public health.

The levels found in the tested insecticides are recorded to be as high as 19,200,000 parts per trillion in the spiromesifen product. The highest detection are found for the PFAS chemical PFOS (perfluorooctanesulfonic acid), the same chemical used by the company 3M as part of its Stotchgard stain repellents. Reporting in the Intercept shows that the company suppressed information on the dangers of PFOS, resulting in widespread contamination and public health impacts to communities throughout the United States.

In addition to the disturbingly high levels of PFOS in the sprimesifen product, products containing two of the most widely used insecticides in the world also show high level detections. An imidacloprid (neonicotinoid) product was found to contain 13,300,000 ppt, while a malathion product contained 17,800,000 ppt.

While the study authors note that application levels are likely to be lower as the products tested were concentrates, levels found can still result in widespread contamination. As the study notes, “While the insecticides tested are commonly used on cotton, a non-consumptive agricultural product, PFAS are generally believed to not significantly degrade environmentally. Years of continuous use of PFAS and PFAS precursor-containing pesticides could lead to significant concentration of PFAS in the soil.”

In addition to remaining in the environment for the knowable future, a significant portion is likely to be taken up by crops grown where these insecticides were applied. According to researchers, “Future use of soils treated with PFAS contaminated pesticides for other crops or pesticide drift could lead to PFAS concentrations being found in crops used for human or animal consumption.” Researchers found that corn, beans, and peanuts grown on the USDA research site all contain PFOS at 3,230 ppt, 4,260 ppt, and 407 ppt, respectively.  

The products tested had all been in use for years, and may not represent current formulations, but it appears likely, if results are even somewhat similar for other pesticide products, that immense damage has already been done. These findings fly in the face of EPA’s recent determination that the primary source of PFAS pesticide contamination is coming from fluorinated HDPE (high density polyethylene) containers that store bulk pesticides. EPA’s testing measured PFAS at roughly 15 parts per billion, while the current detections are magnitudes higher.

At the same time as EPA released results on fluorinated containers, the agency announced it is eliminating a set of 12 inert ingredients that could be considered PFAS. While it is possible the formulations tested contained these inert ingredients, the data nonetheless point to a much wider problem.

“This research has alarming implications that demand immediate regulatory action: EPA must test all pesticides, and immediately ban the use of pesticides that contain PFAS,” said Dr. Bennett, arguing that EPA can no longer rely on voluntary manufacturer testing. “The level of absorption by plants suggests that a person could absorb a lifetime dose of PFAS from eating one salad made with produce treated with these pesticides.”

This news is yet another reason why local communities should not place their trust in EPA’s regulatory process to ensure safety for their residents and local environment. Join Beyond Pesticides in encouraging localities to move away from hazardous, contaminated pesticides and transition their public parks to organic land management practices. And for more background on the ongoing PFAS and pesticides saga, see Beyond Pesticides’ collection of PFAS articles.

All unattributed positions and opinions in this piece are those of Beyond Pesticides.

Source: Journal of Hazardous Materials Letters, PEER press release

Image Source: Journal of Hazardous Materials Letters

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2 Responses to “Despite EPA Safety Assurances, Alarming Levels of PFAS Found in Commonly Used Pesticides”

  1. 1
    Kevin Callahan Says:

    Good afternoon.
    I read the original research article along w the PEER article which was written by Kyla Bennett. In response to her article from which I believe you maybe drawing the same conclusions, I wrote the following:

    “Kyla,
    Good morning.

    I read your recent article in PEER regarding PFAS and insecticides. I have been following this topic since the discovery in MA two years ago of PFAS in mosquito insecticides which then was linked to fluorinated HDPE containers by the EPA. Consequently, my company has been working w various AgChem companies in transitioning from fluorinated HDPE containers to our containers which do not contain PFAS. As one example, the mosquito product in MA which started the chain of events was previously packed in fluorinated HDPE containers and are now packaged in our HDPE/Nylon containers. Since then, the EPA and other labs have confirmed the lack of PFAS in the very same mosquito products since the transition to our products.

    In the study you reference which I read, it highlights the discovery of PFAS in the insecticides that were drawn from both the soil and sealed plastic containers stored in a cabinet. You write in the article, “This contamination does not spring from contaminated barrels but from the ingredients of the pesticides themselves, possibly added as dispersants to aid in the even spreading of the agents on plant surfaces.” But the study makes no such claim. Rather, the missing link that needs to be ascertained is whether or not the insecticide HDPE containers from which the samples were drawn for analysis in the study were fluorinated. I believe that they were.

    To establish whether or not those insecticide containers were fluorinated is key. One way to do that is to identify the relevant insecticide and review the SDS. If the dispersant/adjuvant is a hydrocarbon, there is a high degree of certainty that the HDPE container utilized was fluorinated. And if the AgChem HDPE container was fluorinated which it probably was then PFAS compounds will leach into the product contained and contaminate the soil that was treated. Another way is to get a sample of the packaged insecticide that was analyzed and test the container for fluorination.

    The recently released EPA long term soak study of fluorinated HDPE containers clearly demonstrates PFAS compounds contaminating the packaged test liquids. Thus, the EPA confirmed their earlier March 2021 that this PFAS contamination is resultant of the fluorination of HDPE. Fluorination of HDPE containers for AgChem products has, unfortunately, been occurring for years and is highly prevalent. Estimates are that 47 million AgChem containers are fluorinated yearly. This has resulted in both contaminated soil and contaminated plastic in the recycle stream (we have the study to confirm the presence of PFAS compounds in the recycle stream which has been shared w the EPA).

    Even more concerning is that the public is not aware of how ubiquitous fluorination of HDPE containers is – fluorination of HDPE containers occurs not just in AgChem containers but also in medical products, food packaging, health and beauty aids, and automotive products.”

    So, to sum up, the pesticides themselves are not the origin of the PFAS – rather it is more than likely that the storage containers they were kept in were the origin. Because it is w high probability that these storage containers for the package pesticides were fluorinated. Additionally, the PFAS contamination found in the soil is also the result of fluorinated HDPE leaching said PFAS contamination into the pesticide which is then sprayed onto the crops. The EPA is aware of this mechanism and is also aware that the AgChem fluorinated containers are subsequently recycled and thereby contaminating the recycle stream w PFAS compounds.

    If you wish to discuss further, do not hesitate to reach out.

  2. 2
    Steven Lasee Says:

    Thank you for covering my research. If you have any questions or would like to talk about it, please let me know.

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