PFAS in packaging


A new peer-reviewed study has raised concerns about a group of toxic PFAS chemicals, known as fluorotelomers, which are used in food packaging. While industry has claimed that these chemicals are safe, the study reveals that they can break off from the packaging and contaminate food and drinks, posing a health threat. This subgroup of PFAS has been promoted as a safer alternative to the first generation of PFAS compounds, which have been phased out due to their high toxicity.

Previous research has already indicated the potential high toxicity of fluorotelomers, and this study further demonstrates how these compounds can migrate from packaging into food. The authors of the study argue that the use of PFAS in food packaging should be banned, considering the opportunities for the release and exposure to these chemicals.

PFAS, or per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, are a class of chemicals used to make products resistant to water, stains, and heat. They are referred to as “forever chemicals” because they do not naturally break down and are associated with various health problems such as cancer, liver issues, thyroid disorders, birth defects, and kidney disease.

For many years, PFAS have been added to food packaging materials, including paper wrappers, bags, plates, and cups, to repel grease and water. They are also used as a barrier in some plastic food packaging to prevent spoilage. Moulded fibre bowls, often marketed as “green” and “compostable,” frequently contain PFAS.

In 2020, the US Food and Drug Administration reached a voluntary agreement with certain packaging producers to phase out a specific fluorotelomer, 6:2 FTOH, within five years, after evidence of its toxicity was concealed by chemical manufacturers.

The study coauthor, Miriam Diamond from the University of Toronto, suggests that 6:2 FTOH and similar compounds may no longer be directly added to food packaging but can be present as a byproduct of the use of another group of PFAS known as “fluoropolymers.” Industry claims that fluoropolymers, being larger in size, do not migrate from packaging into food. However, the study highlights the possibility of 6:2 FTOH breaking off from the fluoropolymer after it is added to food packaging, creating a potential loophole.

The study examined 42 pieces of packaging from popular fast-food restaurants and found PFAS in approximately half of them. Additionally, the research revealed that PFAS levels dropped by up to 85% when the contaminated products were stored in a dark, enclosed area for two years, indicating that PFAS does break off from the packaging.

“We were really dismayed,” Diamond said of the findings.

The high rate of chemical release observed in the study, even under benign conditions, raises concerns since PFAS migration is known to occur at much higher rates when in contact with acidic food or beverages served at high temperatures. These findings suggest a potential health threat.

“You don’t need a whole lot of release to increase the levels of PFAS in food, or to be introduced into the home or environment,” she said. “This shows how mobile the chemicals are.”

The research coincides with efforts by the Canadian government and other countries to phase out single-use plastics, which may lead to increased reliance on “compostable” moulded fibre packaging. However, this type of packaging contains the highest levels of PFAS, despite PFAS not being compostable and major sustainable packaging certification organisations discontinuing their certification for products containing these chemicals.

The levels of PFAS migration into food and drinks detected in the study exceed the advisory daily intake limits established by the Canadian government and the EU for some PFAS compounds.

The study’s authors highlight that the switch from plastic to PFAS-contaminated packaging raises a new set of concerns, emphasising the need for further scrutiny and regulation in this area.

“It would represent a regrettable substitution of trading one harmful option for another,” the authors wrote.



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