PFAS pollutants causing turmoil
In October, nearly every construction project came to a grinding halt in the Netherlands, because not a single project except the smallest ones can be completed without excessive paper work or laboratory tests.
Why? The current legal threshold for PFAS, an abbreviation for perfluorinated alkylated substances has been set extremely low until the government is able to define a proper health limit for contaminated soil so as to prevent contamination of clean soil with more heavily contaminated soil.
If cemeteries hadn't been exempt from the rule, not a single dead body could have been interred, since PFAS-chemicals , also known as 'forever chemicals' have accumulated in our bodies to an extent that exceeds the legally set threshold, which is currently as low as the lowest possible detection level.
Why should we be concerned about PFAS?If you’ve eaten microwave popcorn, a blueberry muffin, french fries, or toast with butter, it’s possible a dose of PFAS-chemicals came with your meal.
PFAS-chemicals are also known as 'non-stick' chemicals because their handy characteristic to prevent grease from soaking through the container or food from sticking to the package.
Unfortunately, these harmful PFAS chemicals don’t all stick to the packaging. Instead, some move from the packaging, to our food and environment, raising serious health and environmental concerns.
Problematic PFAS chemicalsSpecial chemical properties make PFAS chemicals extremely effective for repelling stains, water, and grease. They’re used in a wide variety of products like carpet, furniture, clothing, firefighting foam, and food packaging. But their effectiveness is also what makes them problematic.
PFAS chemicals don’t break down easily in our bodies or in the environment and as such are virtually indestructible, giving rise to their other nickname 'forever chemicals'. Some PFAS chemicals can stay in our bodies for as long as eight years or more.
The chemicals are linked to kidney and testicular cancer, hormone disruption, liver toxicity, harm to the immune system, and reduced birth weight. This combination of persistence and toxicity makes exposure to PFAS chemicals especially concerning. Unfortunately, human exposures are occurring on a daily basis.
A study of over 600 American kids found that every single child tested had PFAS chemicals in their body.
It’s showing up in breast milk too, though in lower concentration than that of their moms.
PFAS chemicals in food packaging get into our foodPFAS-treated food packaging plays a role in these exposures. Non-stick chemicals can move from the packaging, to the food, and then into our bodies with each bite. Muffin cups, sandwich wrappers, butter wrappers, and microwave popcorn bags have all been found to leach nonstick chemicals into food.
The amount of non-stick chemicals that move to the food appears to increase when the food and the PFAS-treated material are heated. For example, microwave popcorn popped in a PFAS-coated bag was found to have higher levels of PFAS chemicals than before heating.
Surprisingly, in some cases the PFAS-treated material acts like a 'PFAS factory' producing additional PFAS chemicals as the non-stick coatings break down, which especially holds true in older PFAS-coated non-stick pans.
But it’s not just heated packaging. PFASs have been found to migrate even in cold storage. One PFAS compound in butter wrapped in a coated wrapper increased 8-fold after being stored for 45 days.
The connection between PFAS in food packaging and the environment
While fish and birds aren’t eating food packaged in materials coated with non-stick chemicals, food packaging is still a source of PFAS to the environment. When packaging containing non-stick chemicals is discarded into compost or landfilled, the chemicals pollute water, soil, and wildlife.
Researchers are detecting PFAS-chemicals in compost, landfill leachate, and biosolids, which is organic material created from sewage. Because these chemicals don’t break down easily, they move through the environment for many years.
The largest amounts of PFAS is found near factories producing these compounds, such as DuPont (Chemours in the Netherlands) that discharge waste directly into the river nearby. Fire-fighting foam is another major source of pollution, which can be found anywhere a large fire has been raging or in locations the fire squad is practicing on a large scale such as near air ports or military bases.
There is cause for concern.
Laboratory studies have linked PFAS chemicals to hormone disruption in Atlantic salmon, to liver cancer and hormone disruption in rainbow trout, and to liver toxicity and abnormal sexual development in tadpoles.
PFAS chemicals have also been linked to decreased hatching success in tree swallows and decreased reproductive success of bumble bees (an important pollinator), as well as immune, hematopoietic, kidney, and liver function effects in South Carolina bottlenose dolphin.
Scientists have also shown that non-stick cemicals in the environment are taken up by crops, creating another route of exposure in the cycle of pollution.
Are we stuck with non-stick PFAS chemicals in food packaging?The good news is that manufacturers are making alternatives and food companies are beginning to opt for non-PFAS alternatives. In recent testing, less than half of the packaging tested positive for PFAS chemicals.
Food packaging offers a commonsense and easy place to start to eliminate a source of chemicals that have become a serious public and environmental problem.
There are many sources of non-stick chemicals to our bodies and the environment. For example, firefighting foam is the most likely culprit for contaminated drinking water in several communities, and stain-resistant coatings on products like carpets and clothing also contribute to our overall dose.
PFAS chemicals are used in so many ways, it will take a comprehensive plan to limit their use and to clean up existing contamination.
But the evidence is clear on non-stick chemicals in food packaging: the chemicals aren’t good for our health, don’t stay where they are supposed to, and move to where we don’t want them – our food and environment.