EU consumers increasingly exposed to ‘forever chemicals’ in fruit and vegetables, study warns

By Oliver Morrison

- Last updated on GMT

Image: Getty/Justin Paget
Image: Getty/Justin Paget

Related tags pesticides PFAS

Fruit and vegetables in Europe are increasingly contaminated with PFAS pesticide residues (per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances), according to a study by the NGO PAN Europe.

Analysis of official data from the national monitoring programmes of pesticide residues in food in Member States found that the number of European fruit and vegetables with detected PFAS pesticide residues nearly tripled between 2011 and 2021, with a growth rate of 220% for fruit and of 274% for vegetables.

The rise was even greater in some of the EU Member States studied individually: Austria (+698% for fruit, +3,277% for vegetables) and Greece (+696% in fruit, +1974% in vegetables).

According to the study, 37% of strawberries, 35% of peaches and 31% of apricots were contaminated.

Of this contaminated European-grown fruit, 20% contained cocktails of PFAS pesticide residues, with up to four different PFAS pesticides detected in a single sample of strawberries and table grapes, and up to three in peaches and apricots. 

A smaller percentage of European-grown vegetables (12%) was contaminated with PFAS pesticide residues, the study said, though some vegetables are as frequently contaminated as the top-ranked fruit (chicories: 42; cucumbers: 30%). 

In 2021, the Member States that produced fruit and vegetables most frequently contaminated with PFAS pesticide residues were the Netherlands (27%), Belgium (27%), Austria (25%), Spain (22%) and Portugal (21%). Among imported fruit and vegetables, those most likely to contain residues of PFAS pesticides came from Costa Rica (41%), India (38%), South Africa (28%), Colombia (26%) and Morocco (24%). 

In 2021, the most often detected PFAS active substances in contaminated European-grown products were the fungicide fluopyram, the insecticide flonicamid and the fungicide trifloxystrobin. 

This source of PFAS contamination should not be downplayed, the study warned. PAN Europe said the accumulation of PFAS in soils, waters and the food chain, along with other chemical substances or “chemical cocktails”, pose long-term risks to human health and the environment.

The group is calling for an ‘urgent’ ban on the use of PFAS pesticides is to protect citizen health, including that of the most vulnerable groups, such as pregnant women, babies and children.

Key insights: How prevalent are ‘forever chemicals’ in Europe’s crops

  • Residues of 31 different PFAS pesticides were detected in fruit and vegetables in the EU between 2011 and 2021
  • The number of fruit and vegetables containing residues of at least one PFAS pesticide in the EU has tripled in 10 years
  • In 2021, European-grown fruits such as strawberries (37%), peaches (35%) and apricots (31%) were particularly contaminated, often containing cocktails of three to four different PFAS in a single fruit
  • The Netherlands, Belgium, Austria, Spain, Portugal and Greece are the leader producers of PFAS-contaminated food within the EU, while countries such as Costa Rica, India and South Africa are for the EU the main exporters of high-PFAS laden food.

Per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, or PFAS, are known as ‘forever chemicals’ because of their exceptional persistence. They stand among the greatest current risks for humans and the environment, according to the European Environment Agency.

They pollute water resources and accumulate in soils, food crops and living organisms, including humans and the limited evidence available indicates a range of human health and environmental effects linked to exposure.

Last week, the US Food and Drug Administration announced that grease-proofing materials containing per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) would no longer be sold for use in food packaging in the U.S, removing the major source of dietary exposure to PFAS from food packaging like fast-food wrappers, microwave popcorn bags, take-out paperboard containers and pet food bags. This follows the European Parliament vote last year in favour of banning PFAS in food packaging.

European agriculture, however,  is still contributing to the PFAS legacy, warned the PAN Europe report.

PFAS have been either deliberately introduced by industry into pesticide products with the addition of a few fluorine atoms to increase their effectiveness, or result as breakdown byproducts, such as the water pollutant trifluoroacetic acid (TFA), it said.

Farmers, meanwhile, are generally unaware that they are spraying the ‘forever pesticides’ on their crops, the group added, as is not mentioned on the label.

“Our study reveals a deliberate, chronic and widespread exposure of European consumers to cocktails of PFAS pesticides in fruit and vegetables,” said Salomé Roynel, PAN Europe’s policy officer. “When zooming in on the most detected PFAS pesticides, evidence about their persistence and their toxicity to human health is already well documented, including risks to unborn children, brain damage, disruption of the endocrine system and cancer.”

Crops: an easily avoidable source of PFAS pollution?

Moreover, the impact of pesticide mixtures is “simply not investigated” she added. For example, it is not known if PFAS pesticides possess the extreme toxicity of 'heavy PFAS', but their persistence and toxicity cannot be ignored, according to PAN Europe. While the limits for 'heavy PFAS' are regulated in parts of micrograms per kg of food, PFAS pesticides are permitted in parts per milligrams per kg of food: a thousandfold difference, it said.

Meanwhile, the fact that most residues detected in the study were under the Maximum Residue Limits (MRLs) does not clear the concerns, the group said. Although required by law, MRLs for pesticides are set without assessing the cocktail effects arising from a combined exposure to several chemical substances, it complained. This lack of consideration for the overall level of exposure of consumers to chemicals means that MRLs are set too high, it believes, underestimating the risks, particularly from persistent pesticides such as PFAS. 

“PFAS pesticides are absolutely not necessary to grow crops,” said Roynel. “They are an easily avoidable source of PFAS pollution. Maintaining PFAS pesticide approvals in the EU leads to the intentional exposure of citizens to PFAS residues day after day, despite the calls from the medical community for a complete phase-out.”

In 2020, the EU pledged to ban all unnecessary PFAS in Europe, but PFAS pesticides were left out of the proposal on the assumption that they are already sufficiently regulated under the EU Pesticides Law.

That’s not the case, according to PAN Europe, which cited a separate report​ from last year.   

Angeliki Lysimachou, PAN Europe’s head of science and policy, said: “The approval of PFAS pesticides, often applied in mixtures, highlights significant shortcomings in both EU and national pesticide assessments. It demonstrates a disregard for EU law, allowing the use of pesticides that may harm human and animal health, as well as the environment, in our food production. The persistence of these PFAS pesticides, along with their intrinsic toxic properties, should have led to their swift ban.”

Related topics Food Safety & Quality

Related news

Follow us


View more