Researchers dismiss “safe PFAS” alternatives as harmful “whack-a-mole” solutions
30 Mar 2023 --- A study reveals replacement per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS), heralded as safe for use in food packaging, actually break down into toxic PFAS that leak into food and the environment. The replacement PFAS are called polymeric PFAS promoted as “safer” alternatives with claims that they are too heavy to escape from products.
Due to the known exposure risks of using smaller PFAS molecules – commonly referred to as “forever chemicals” – like PFOA and PFOS in food-contact materials, many companies have pivoted to using larger polymeric PFAS to make their wrappers, bowls and other fast-food packaging water- and grease-repellant.
“As some legacy PFAS are withdrawn from the market or regulated, alternative compounds are introduced as replacements. The idea behind this process, sometimes called ‘whack-a-mole,’ is that the alternative is safer than the compound it replaces,” Marta Venier, co-author, and professor at Indiana University, US, tells PackagingInsights.
“In reality, the result is a regretful substitution since the newly introduced compound has similar properties to the compound it replaces. The replacement is considered ‘safer’ because less is known about that specific chemical.”
A call for safer alternatives
The report was published in Environmental Science & Technology Letters. It provides the first evidence that polymeric PFAS used in food packaging break down into smaller molecules that are still dangerous and can leach into food and the environment.
“We hope this study will contribute more information to the packaging industry and more companies will choose to move away from PFAS in their packaging as there are safe alternatives not involving PFAS,” says Venier.
The researchers tested 42 paper-based wrappers and bowls collected from fast-food restaurants in Toronto, Canada. The PFAS that is known to be toxic – 6:2 FTOH (6:2 fluorotelomer alcohol) – was the most abundant compound detected in these samples.
The polymeric PFAS in the samples can transform into this compound, thereby adding to a consumer’s exposure to it.
“We analyzed 42 fast food packaging types, of which about half showed evidence of PFAS. That means the other half achieved water and grease repellency without PFAS,” explains Venier.
Heavy PFAS breakdown
The researchers found that the concentration of PFAS declined by up to 85% after storing the products for two years at room temperature and in the dark. The losses were consistent with the breakdown of the polymeric PFAS added to the fast-food packaging.
The results contradict claims that polymeric PFAS are immobile and do not create exposure risks.
“The side chains of these polymeric PFAS can become loose and transfer in the air and dust, becoming an additional source of PFAS in the environment. Our finding of the degradation of these polymers also supports concerns that these impurities and degradation products will transfer from the packaging into foods,” continues Venier.
“Our results show that discarded packaging with these polymeric PFAS will be a source to the environment of mobile, non-polymeric PFAS.”
Moving away from PFAS
Some smaller PFAS molecules have been associated with health concerns, from cancer to obesity to more severe COVID-19 pandemic outcomes.
PFAS concerns have prompted 11 US states to ban PFAS from most food packaging and major chains such as Mcdonalds and Chick-fil-A to commit to becoming PFAS-free by 2025.
Venier asserts that “the writing is on the wall” regarding the complete ban of using PFAS as more areas ban the chemical.
“We anticipate more paper-based food packaging will be used because of the pressure to avoid using single-use plastics in food serviceware. The food packaging industry needs to avoid increasingly using fiber-based food packaging with PFAS to achieve water and grease repellency,” she concludes.
By Sabine Waldeck
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