A new study has found that per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS), harmful chemicals commonly used in food packaging to repel water and grease, are present in nearly half of the tested samples, including pizza boxes, popcorn bags and fast-food wrappers.
The study, published in the journal Environmental Science & Technology Letters, tested 42 food packaging samples for PFAS. The results suggest that people are still being exposed to PFAS despite efforts to phase out some of these chemicals.
"PFAS used in food packaging have a high potential of exposing consumers to compounds that are of toxicological concern such as 6:2 FTOH and some of the less known compounds identified via NTA such as FTUCAs and FTCAs," the study's authors noted. "Further, our results suggest that, when stored, such food packaging could be a source of exposure to volatile PFAS such as FTOHs and FTMAcs in indoor air, as they appear to be released over time."
The study tested a range of food packaging materials, including paper-based products such as pizza boxes and sandwich wrappers, as well as plastic-based products such as fast-food wrappers and bags for microwave popcorn. While the study did not test for the presence of PFAS chemicals in the food itself, previous research has shown that these chemicals can migrate from food packaging into the food.
Miriam L. Diamond, the study's lead author and a professor in the University of Toronto’s department of Earth Sciences, commented, "As Canada restricts single-use plastics in food-service ware, our research shows that what we like to think of as the better alternatives are not so safe and green after al."
She added, “In fact, they may harm our health and the environment by providing a direct route to PFAS exposure – first by contaminating the food we eat, and after they’re thrown away, polluting our air and drinking water.
The use of PFAS chemicals in food packaging has been the subject of increasing concern in recent years, and several companies have pledged to phase out the use of these chemicals in their products. In 2020, McDonald’s announced that it would eliminate PFAS chemicals from its food packaging by 2025, and in 2021, Dunkin’ Donuts and Wendy’s made similar commitments.
However, the study’s authors say that more needs to be done to address the widespread use of PFAS chemicals in food packaging.
"The bottom line is, there’s too much PFAS in the world and not enough restrictions around their use,” Diamond said. “We need to get serious about replacing these substances with safer alternatives if we want to protect our health, and our planet’s health.”
The study’s findings add to a growing body of research on the health effects of PFAS chemicals. In addition to their use in food packaging, PFAS chemicals are also found in a range of consumer products, including non-stick cookware, stain-resistant carpets, and waterproof clothing. The chemicals are known to persist in the environment for years and can accumulate in the bodies of animals and humans.
As awareness of the health risks associated with PFAS chemicals grows, some countries and states have taken action to restrict their use. In the United States, several states have enacted laws to regulate PFAS chemicals in drinking water, and in 2019, the European Union banned the use of some types of PFAS chemicals in food packaging.
However, the study’s authors argue that more needs to be done to address the widespread use of these chemicals in consumer products.
"The continued use of PFAS in food packaging should be questioned given opportunities for release and exposure and the movement by numerous government bodies and private entities to discontinue their use," the study's authors concluded. "In particular, the use of PFAS in plant fiber-based food packaging (e.g., molded cardboard bowls) could be seen as a regrettable substitution for single-use plastic because of the hazard posed by the use of PFAS."