Inside FDA’s ‘forever chemicals’ catastrophe

Lawyers for DuPont knew the Food and Drug Administration had a serious concern that the company’s new food packaging product might be toxic.

Beagles and rats that were fed DuPont’s grease-resistant coating for paper wrappers had enlarged livers after three months, a report ( showed.

The year was 1966.

Inside FDA, toxicologists were irritated. “The petition is not acceptable for filing,” they wrote in an internal memo ( The scientists wanted a two-year health study of the nonstick coating and the unfamiliar chemicals it was made of.

A key chemical in that mixture is now infamous: PFOA, a notorious polluter of U.S. water supplies.

The DuPont product, Zonyl RP, entered the picture as the nation was transforming its food system. Americans wanted eating to be fast, easy and cheap. At supermarkets, paper and plastic containers were delivering more food options to millions of people. Fast-food restaurants wrapped burgers and fries for working families.

With billions of dollars in future sales in the balance, questions about Zonyl’s safety were trouble for DuPont. So the company cut ( the amount of the coating it planned to apply to food packaging in half. Only in “exceptional circumstances,” DuPont’s lawyer assured ( id=0000017f-4636-df9b-adff-c7bf60150000) FDA, would the substance rub off packaging and make it into people’s food.

The nation’s food safety watchdog agreed (, effectively waiving the longer-term health study.

For the next half-century, PFOA would find its way into the American diet through everything from buttery popcorn to burgers and pizza.

While much of the public focus so far has been on drinking water, the dangers of PFOA and similar compounds in food packaging have largely been overlooked, especially by regulators.

In a six-month investigation, E&E News reviewed decades of FDA, corporate and court documents to form a clearer picture of the federal response to the chemicals’ presence in food. Critics of FDA describe an agency that sets a high bar for alerting the public of food chemical safety issues, even when PFOA and similar compounds are detected in food at relatively high levels.

FDA rarely checks back in with chemical makers about what is already in the food supply — even as science exposes more about health effects.

Scientists have linked PFOA to kidney and testicular cancers, liver problems, thyroid issues, low birth weight, and the suppression of children’s immune systems. A study of blood samples from 1999 to 2012 found the human-made compound can remain in people’s bodies for years. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention study estimated that almost every American had it in their blood.

For the past 20 years, activists, lawyers, regulators and Hollywood stars have trained a spotlight on polluted aquifers around company towns like Parkersburg, W.Va., where DuPont released the chemical into the Ohio River. But that scrutiny has seldom focused on PFOA and related chemicals in food, even as the Biden administration says it is mounting a “whole of government” effort to limit exposure to those substances across the country.

“The focus has been on drinking water, but food is major,” said Betsy Southerland, a former director of science and technology in EPA’s Office of Water. “EPA has focused on what EPA can regulate, and the question is how much longer is it going to take FDA to do something on food.”

Food and chemical policy analysts say FDA is far out of step with EPA on a significant public health issue ( Many of the same experts say the two-year study FDA could have required in 1966 might have offered the first clues about PFOA and the larger family of chemicals it is part of called per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, or PFAS.

FDA’s approach to PFAS echoes its handling of the compound bisphenol A, or BPA, a chemical additive in plastics. BPA was approved in the 1960s for food contact use. But studies in labs around the world have since linked low levels of BPA to reproductive, cognitive and developmental health effects. Europe is weighing a broad ban on BPA in food containers after having already banned its use in baby bottles.