Food nourishes and sustains us, yet many of the foods we eat also contain toxic chemicals. Fruits, vegetables, grains, nuts, meat, dairy, poultry and seafood that we buy in the store may contain pesticide residues, mercury, and other toxic substances.
Exposure to certain pesticides in foods has been linked to cancers, interference with the hormone system, malfunctions of the nervous system and other adverse health effects. Mercury, found in some store-bought tuna and other long-lived predator fish, is known to change or mutate genetic material and to disrupt fetal or embryonic development. Mercury is also a suspected carcinogen.
Not only are toxic chemicals found in store-bought foods, but contaminants are showing up in animals important to the traditional diet of Alaska Natives and other Arctic Indigenous Peoples. In response to community concern, we are working with the St. Lawrence Island Yupik communities of Savoonga and Gambell to determine the contaminant levels of subsistence foods.
Selected Chemicals of Concern
Even the packaging that food comes in may be toxic. There is evidence that bisphenol-A (BPA), a chemical used in the epoxy-resin lining of metal food cans, can leach into canned goods. BPA is an “endocrine disruptor” known to interfere with the hormonal system of animals and humans. BPA is also found in other containers including baby formula cans, sippy cups, and water bottles.
The FDA, the agency responsible for regulating the safety of food, has relied heavily on select industry-funded studies to determine the safety of BPA, and has not fully taken into account the hundreds of independent studies showing that low dose exposure to BPA can disrupt healthy hormone functions and lead to a host of adverse health effects. For additional information about the health effects of BPA and ways to prevent exposure, see:
Both agricultural pesticides and non-agricultural pesticides can be found in our food. Organochlorine pesticides break down slowly in the environment and accumulate in the fatty tissues of animals. Many organochlorine pesticides are endocrine disrupting chemicals, meaning they have subtle toxic effects on the body’s hormonal systems. Learn more about pesticides in food and how you can avoid them.
Perfluorinated chemicals (PFCs)
PFCs are a group of extremely persistent synthetic chemicals used in products to resist grease, oil, stains and water. PFC-coated food products may include non-stick cookware, Teflon, fast food wrappers, pizza boxes, and popcorn bags.
According to the United States EPA, PFCs have become concentrated in humans and other animals due to their presence in the environment as well as exposures from food and consumer products.
Dietary intake is thought to be a major source of exposure to PFCs in humans. PFCs bioaccumulate in the bodies of animals, and humans are exposed to PFCs by consuming animal products.
This can result from eating animals exposed to PFCs through water, soil and dust that are contaminated by PFC production and the degradation of consumer products containing PFCs.
Research has linked PFCs to a range of health effects.
- ACAT”s Mind Disrupted Factsheet on PFCs: How toxic chemicals change how we think and who we are – Perfluorinated Chemicals (PFCs) (pdf)
- Mind Disrupted – A biomonitoring project
Everyone Has the Right to Toxic-Free Food
If possible, growing your own food using organic methods is one way to know what is in your food. Buying local food at farmer’s markets is another option. Talk directly with your farmer and learn as much as possible about the products he or she uses to grow your food.
Not everyone lives in a place where they can garden, or has the time to grow their own food. And many of our communities do not have farmer’s markets. What can you do then? There are a number of organizations that research food safety and help consumers make informed choices at the grocery store.
Be sure to visit our safer alternatives page to learn more about how you can limit your exposure to toxic chemicals found in both commercially-bought and subsistence foods.
Ultimately, assuring our right to toxic-free food will also require sweeping changes in public policy. Current law regulating toxic substances does not require that chemicals be adequately tested for their safety before being used in consumer products. Alaska Community Action on Toxics works on a state, national and international level to phase out the most dangerous chemicals.