Toxic Harvest: Ban PFAS pesticides

While it is now notorious that PFAS are used in diverse consumer products (such as frying pans, textiles, food packaging etc), it is less well known that PFAS pesticides are intentionally sprayed on food crops. Yet, food is a systematic and direct route of exposure to PFAS pesticides for citizens. 37 pesticide active substances approved in the European Union are PFAS according to EU regulators. Some are persistent themselves and others break down into persistent metabolites, such as trifluoroacetic acid (TFA). They directly pollute soils, water resources and the food chain, thereby contributing to the ever-increasing background level of exposure of citizens and the environment to ‘forever chemicals’. PFAS active substances also raise additional environmental and human health concerns beyond persistence, such as endocrine disruption, toxicity for the reproduction and toxicity for aquatic species. Yet, these substances have been approved by regulators, ‘slipping through the cracks’ of Pesticide Regulation. More worryingly, the proposal for a ‘universal’ EU ban on PFAS excludes PFAS pesticides. 

PAN Europe investigated the scale of PFAS pesticide contamination of fruit and vegetables sold in the EU in the decade 2011-2021. Our research is based on data from the national monitoring programmes for pesticide residues in food across EU Member States. The results show an increasing exposure of European consumers via daily food products. While this source of PFAS contamination is currently downplayed compared with that from other better-known PFAS, continued accumulation of PFAS in the food chain and arising chemical cocktails, pose chronic risks to human health. A ban on PFAS pesticides is urgent to curb PFAS exposure via food and protect citizens’ health, in particular that of the most vulnerable groups, such as pregnant women, babies and children. 



Per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) are a group of man-made organic chemicals used in a wide range of consumer products and industrial applications since the 1950s. Their popularity and widespread use stem from their water and oil-repellent properties. These high-performance characteristics, however, come at a price. For decades, the scientific community has been sounding the alarm about the persistence and potential toxicity of these chemicals to which exposure is nearly inevitable due to their widespread pollution. PFAS do not break down easily, persist in our environment and bioaccumulate in living organisms, including humans, up to levels that can cause adverse effects. Some of them are also very mobile and may reach water resources, including drinking water. This raises questions about the long-term health impacts of chronic exposure to PFAS both for humans and ecosystems. While some PFAS are suspected carcinogens, others are linked to developmental issues in children, and many show adverse effects even at low concentrations, impacting the immune and endocrine systems, among others. PFAS persistence and bioaccumulation also raise concern about the issue of the non-reversibility of PFAS environmental pollution for future generations.

As part of the European Green Deal, the European Union committed to phase out PFAS chemicals in line with its zero-pollution ambition for a non-toxic environment. To implement this promise, a proposal for a ‘universal’ restriction of PFAS was submitted to the European Chemical Agency (ECHA) in early 2023. This is the first step of a long-term regulatory action aiming to significantly restrict the presence of these persistent pollutants in Europe.

Among their many uses, PFAS are used in pesticides, either as active substances or as co-formulants, to increase the effectiveness of pesticides against pests (namely their stability). In the proposal for a universal PFAS restriction, a very first EU official list including 47 PFAS active substances was published. To date, 37 of these 47 substances, representing 12% of the synthetic active substances approved in the EU, are still authorised for use as pesticides in food production. It leads to a deliberate spread of PFAS across European agricultural fields and results in direct contamination of our food but also of water resources and the environment. EU farmers are rarely aware of spraying PFAS as this is not indicated on their products.

Surprisingly, EU regulators have proposed to exempt active substances used in pesticides from the foreseen PFAS phasing out proposal, on the assumption that these are sufficiently regulated by the existing Pesticide Law. However, as revealed by the report “Europe’s toxic harvest, unmasking PFAS pesticides authorised in Europe” by PAN Europe and Générations Futures, PFAS active substances are ‘slipping through the cracks’ of a flawed pesticide assessment system. The persistence of active substances and that of their metabolites is not sufficiently regulated. Moreover, other important aspects of the risk assessment of active substances, including the evaluation of their potential endocrine disrupting properties, environmental impact and chronic toxicity are poorly assessed. This results in unjustified and worrying exposure of people and the environment to PFAS pesticides, in contradiction with the precautionary principle.

PFAS contamination due to pesticides, including through dietary exposure, is currently downplayed by decision makers because many of these substances have been less studied by the scientific community that other very-known PFAS food contaminants such as perfluorooctane sulfonic acid (PFOS) and perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA). Yet, the consumption of food products with pesticide residues is the main source of exposure to pesticides in the general population and the maximum residues limits set for authorised pesticides in food are overall much higher than for other PFAS food contaminants. Moreover, the presence of PFAS in pesticides, sometimes in cocktails,  raises important questions regarding the risks of a chronic exposure of consumers to these chemicals via their food. PAN Europe sought to gain a better insight into the scale of the food contamination with residues of PFAS pesticides in Europe and its evolution over the last decade. We focused on conventional fruit and vegetables sold in the EU.  

The study is based on official data from the national monitoring programmes of pesticide residues in food in EU Member States. Only randomly sampled products were incorporated in the study to address an exposure that is representative for EU consumers. The most commonly consumed fruit and vegetables were selected. The analysis was carried out at European Union level (aggregation of all national data), but also at the level of 8 different Member States (Austria, Belgium, France, Germany, Greece, Hungary, the Netherlands, Spain). While all the national results are available in the technical report Toxic harvest: the rise of forever pesticides in fruit and vegetables in Europe. This briefing aims to present the European results.

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Pesticide Action Network Europe (PAN Europe) gratefully acknowledges the financial support from the European Union, European Commission, DG Environment, LIFE programme. Sole responsibility for this publication lies with the authors and the funders are not responsible for any use that may be made of the information contained herein.