New forever chemical concerns as scientists fear food contamination risks

Researchers in North America have warned that food packaging which was deemed to be safe may well release “forever chemicals” over time posing a threat to not only in food but also drinking water and air.

The team from the University of Toronto, Indiana University and University of Notre Dame said its study provides the first evidence that polymeric PFAS used in food packaging break down into smaller molecules that are still harmful and can leach into food and the environment.

“It’s clear that polymers aren’t the harmless loophole the PFAS industry was counting on them to be,” said Marta Venier, co-author and professor at Indiana University. “Their use in food packaging still leads to harmful and persistent PFAS contaminating the food we eat, and after it’s thrown away, our air and drinking water.”

The researchers tested 42 paper-based wrappers and bowls collected from fast food restaurants in Toronto. A 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.

Critically, the researchers found that the concentration of PFAS declined by up to 85% after storing the products for two years under normal conditions (at room temperature and in the dark). Much of these losses were consistent with the breakdown of the polymeric PFAS added to the fast-food packaging. These results contradict claims that polymeric PFAS are immobile and do not create exposure risks.

It also found PFAS chemicals—short for per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances—for the first time in Canadian fast-food packaging, specifically water-and-grease repellent paper alternatives to plastic.

The team said the study points to continued concerns that food packaging exposes people directly to PFAS, 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 these “forever chemicals” will never break down. These health and environmental risks have prompted 11 U.S. states to ban PFAS from most food packaging, and two major restaurant chains to commit to becoming PFAS-free by 2025.

“As Canada restricts single-use plastics in food-service 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. 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,” says Miriam Diamond, professor in the Department of Earth Sciences and School of the Environment at the University of Toronto and study co-author.

PFAS are a complex group of about 9,000 manufactured chemicals, few of which have been studied for their toxicity the team explained.

“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 fibre-based food packaging that doesn’t contain PFAS,” says Diamond.