Consumer and environmental groups have stepped up their campaign to outlaw “forever chemicals”, and new research found many are included in food packaging across the United States.
No- profit organisation Consumer Results (CR) studied a wide range of food packaging and found all contained levels of per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS), known as “forever chemicals.”
They said many of the packaging was for firms which had pledged to either reduce or eradicate the use of PFAS in their packaging.
PFAS can be found in non-stick pans and waterproof gear band also in the grease-resistant packaging that holds food from takeaway chains and supermarkets. CR added packaging made with PFAS often resembles paper or cardboard, but salad dressing and fry oil do not leak through.
In recent decades, PFAS exposure has been linked to a growing list of problems, including immune system suppression, lower birth weight, and increased risk for some cancers. This raises alarms about the use of these compounds, especially in items such as burger wrappers and salad bowls.
To see how often PFAS are still found in food containers, Consumer Reports tested more than 100 food packaging products from restaurant and grocery chains. it found the chemicals in many types of packaging, from paper bags for French fries and wrappers for hamburgers to moulded fibre salad bowls and single-use paper plates.
“PFAS were in some packaging from every retailer we looked at,” it added. “We even found the chemicals in packaging from places that claimed to already be moving away from PFAS, though those levels were often lower than at other retailers.”
“We know from our testing that it is feasible for retailers to use packaging with very low PFAS levels,” said Brian Ronholm, director of food policy at CR. “So the good news is there are steps that companies can take now to reduce their use of these dangerous chemicals.”
Scientists and regulators are still debating what level of organic fluorine indicates intentional use. California has banned intentionally added PFAS, starting in January 2023, paper food packaging must have less than 100 parts per million organic fluorine. Denmark has settled on 20 ppm as that threshold. CR’s experts support the 20-ppm limit.
Michael Hansen, senior scientist at CR, acknowledges that trace amounts of PFAS in food packaging may be inevitable. He added: “No company should tell consumers that their products are 100 percent free of PFAS.” But he continued CR’s tests show that getting to very low levels is possible and should be a goal for everyone.
“We are paying enormous amounts of money to clean up contamination from PFAS,” but it would be better to ban them from food packaging and other unnecessary uses to begin with, said Liz Hitchcock, director of Safer Chemicals Healthy Families, a consumer advocacy group.
“Trying to ban individual PFAS is an impossible game of whack a mole,” said Ronholm. “As soon as one is addressed, industry comes up with another.”
Non-profit organisation Environmental Working Group (EWG) in collaboration with academic researchers, federal and state regulatory agencies, and other non-profit research organisations undertook tests on hundreds of food wrappers, bags and boxes in 2017. In those earlier tests, 46 percent of the paper and 20 percent of the paperboard samples had detectable fluorine, a marker for deliberate PFAS usage, at a level attributed to intentional use.
“The use of PFAS in food contact materials should end immediately and, because of the incredible toxicity of these chemicals, any detected contamination should be reduced as much as possible,” said David Andrews, EWG senior scientist.
The group added nearly everyone tested in the US has PFAS compounds in their blood, with exposure from many sources, including food, water, consumer products and dust.
In June 2021, EWG and other organizations petitioned the FDA to end all uses of PFAS in food packaging. The groups urged the FDA to study all routes of exposure to PFAS when considering whether the chemicals are safe for use in food.