The Agriculture and Food Research Initiative of the USDA National Institute of Food and Agriculture recently awarded a grant worth $479,712 to a team of researchers including Amina Salamova, associate research scientist at the O’Neill School, to study toxic chemicals in food packaging.
The project, “Mapping Potential Human Exposure to Per- and Polyfluoroalkyl Substances (PFAS) from Domestic and Imported Food Packaging,” is a collaboration with Carla Ng (University of Pittsburgh). Salamova will lead the efforts on targeted analysis of PFAS. Research will begin in early 2021 and last through the end of 2023.
PFAS are a class of chemicals widely used in food packaging because of their non-stick properties and their ability to repel oil. PFAS are also known to accumulate in the human body, sometimes with toxic results. People who consume a lot of packaged foods or fast food have higher concentrations of these chemicals in their blood, indicating that chemicals from the packaging enter our bodies through contaminated food.
Select PFAS have been voluntarily removed from U.S. markets and banned in the European Union. However, other countries are not bound by these restrictions – and researchers have very little information about which PFAS are still used in food packaging and what their effects might be.
Salamova and her colleagues will perform the first systematic survey of PFAS in both domestic and imported packaged foods. They will start by building a database of packaged food available in both national supermarket chains and local international markets to come up with a representative selection of foods to study. Then, they will use state-of-the-art methods to analyze which PFAS are present in food packaging and in what quantity. They will also study how those chemicals are likely to affect humans, using a combination of computer simulations and experiments with zebra fish.
“We’re excited to conduct research that has such big implications for consumer safety. This research will help us understand a lot more about a group of chemicals that are widely used but not well understood,” said Salamova.
The researchers hope to contribute to better policymaking by making regulators aware of the types of food imports most likely to contain toxic PFAS. They also hope to provide guidance that can help consumers reduce their exposure to toxic chemicals and inform scientists about how specific PFAS structures or mixtures lead to increased toxicity to help them design less hazardous chemicals.