Canadian food packaging found to contain toxic PFAS “forever chemicals” for first time
29 Mar 2023 --- Harmful per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) have been detected in Canadian fast-food packaging – specifically water-and-grease repellent paper alternatives to plastic – for the first time.
The researchers at the University of Toronto (Canada), Indiana University (US) and University of Notre Dame (US) say their findings suggest that food packaging exposes people directly to these so-called “forever chemicals,” which have been linked to serious health effects such as increased cancer risk and immune system damage, by contaminating the food they eat.
Further, once discarded packaging enters waste streams, PFAS enter the environment, where the chemicals will never break down. These health and environmental risks have prompted 11 US states to ban PFAS from most food packaging and two major restaurant chains in Burger King and McDonald’s to commit to becoming PFAS-free by 2025.
“As Canada restricts single-use plastics in foodservice ware, our research shows that what we like to think of as the better alternatives, such as paper wrappers and compostable bowls, are not so safe and ‘green’ after all,” says Miriam Diamond, professor in the Department of Earth Sciences and School of the Environment at the University of Toronto and study co-author.
“In fact, they may harm our health and the environment – from our air to our drinking water – by providing a direct route to PFAS exposure.”
The study’s findings
The researchers collected 42 paper-based wrappers and bowls from fast-food restaurants in Toronto and tested them for total fluorine, an indicator of PFAS.
They then completed a detailed analysis of eight of those samples with high levels of total fluorine. Fiber-based molded bowls, which are marketed as “compostable,” had PFAS levels 3-10 times higher than doughnut and pastry bags.
“Forever chemicals” are added to these bowls and bags as a water- and grease-repellent.
PFAS are a complex group of about 9,000 manufactured chemicals, few of which have been studied for their toxicity. A PFAS that is known to be toxic – 6:2 FTOH (6:2 fluorotelomer alcohol) – was the most abundant compound detected in these samples.
Other PFAS that were commonly found in all the Canadian fast-food packaging tested can transform into this compound, thereby adding to a consumer’s exposure to it. The researchers detected several PFAS for the first time in food packaging, showing how difficult it is to track the presence of this large family of compounds.
The study was published yesterday in Environmental Science and Technology Letters.
A regrettable substitution?
Critically, the researchers found that the concentration of PFAS declined by up to 85% after storing the products for two years, contradicting claims that polymeric PFAS – a type composed of larger molecules – do not degrade and escape from products.
The release of PFAS from food packaging into indoor air presents another opportunity for human exposure to these chemicals.
“The use of PFAS in food packaging is a regrettable substitution of trading one harmful option – single-use plastics – for another. We need to strengthen regulations and push for the use of fiber-based food packaging that doesn’t contain PFAS,” says Diamond.
According to Innova Market Insights, nearly half (37%) of global consumers view food safety as one of their two main concerns when purchasing ready meals like sandwiches and wraps, second only to easy transportation (40%).
Forever in the news
PFAS chemicals are increasingly making the headlines, as the adverse health effects of “forever chemicals” come to light. In January, the US state of New York went as far as to officially ban the use of PFAS in food packaging materials.
This month, the EU began discussions on an upcoming ban on PFAS. ChemSec – the environmental non-governmental organization – created an advocacy campaign called PFAS Movement, which brings together over 100 consumer brands that support a comprehensive ban on the substances.
Researchers at the University of Queensland, Australia, recently developed a novel solution for removing PFAS from water using magnets – something the study authors say is “urgently needed” to combat common public health risks like liver and kidney disease.
Meanwhile, scientists from the Environmental Working Group in Washington, US, revealed that eating one freshwater fish a year is equal to consuming one month of drinking water with PFOS (Perfluorooctanesulfonic acid) – a type of PFAS shown to be harmful.
By Joshua Poole
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