Chemicals Of Concern In Your Food Packaging
By Pierre Mouchette | Bits-n-Pieces
Per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) have received criticism from environmental groups and the media. As a consumer of products with PFAS, do you know what they are?
PFAS are a large family of chemicals that share a similar structure. They are all based on a backbone of carbon and fluorine bonds, which are stable and lasting in the environment. These chemicals are widely used for commercial and industrial applications, including water, oil and stain-repellent fabrics, nonstick products, and fire-fighting foams.
PFAS are also widely used in food packaging, where they provide water and grease resistance. Studies have found widespread fluorinated chemicals in dessert and bread wrappers, sandwich and burger wrappers, and paperboard food packaging. The Center for Environmental Health found PFAS in 100% of the microwave popcorn bags and molded fiber food service ware they tested.
Particular PFAS based on a chain of eight carbon atoms (C8 PFAS) such as PFOA and PFOS were widely used and are linked with high cholesterol, ulcerative colitis, thyroid disease, testicular cancer, kidney cancer, and pregnancy-induced hypertension and preeclampsia. Although these particular chemicals are no longer manufactured in the United States, due to the strength and stability of the carbon-fluorine bond, they are persistent in the environment, so we are still exposed to them via drinking water and other sources.
Note: when the C8 PFAS were phased out, chemical suppliers and product manufacturers looked for replacement chemicals that would provide similar performance, particularly for water, grease, and stain resistance. Many turned to shorter-chain PFAS that were structurally similar to those that had been phased out but contained fewer carbon atoms (such as GenX manufactured by DuPont and its successor Chemours). Unfortunately, these replacement PFAS are based on highly stable carbon-fluorine bonds, meaning they are also highly persistent in the environment. Even though there is not as much data about these newer chemicals, they are related to liver and kidney damage. Studies suggest an association with increased rates of certain cancers.
Short-chain PFAS are still approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration for use in food contact packaging. This is a problem because PFAS can migrate from packaging into food and because the chemicals persist after the end of the useful life of the package. PFAS have been detected in leachate from landfills and biosolids from wastewater. When biosolids are applied to agricultural fields, the PFAS can be absorbed by crops and enter the food supply. In fact, the short-chain PFAS that are on the market today is more mobile in the environment than the long-chain PFAS they replaced. Since all PFAS are so persistent, including the new short-chain PFAS, the more we use them, the more will eventually end up in the environment, and all the more reason to avoid them in the first place.
Safer alternatives exist, and now is the time for companies to take action. Companies should understand what chemicals are in the products and packages they sell and the hazards associated with those chemicals to avoid replacing a hazardous chemical with an equally dangerous substitute. Dangerous chemicals that persist indefinitely in the environment have no place in a circular economy.