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Single-Use Food Packaging from 17 Countries Contains PFAS “Forever Chemicals”

IPEN PFAS report

Gothenburg City, Sweden/Quezon City Philippines. A study released today by the International Pollutants Elimination Network (IPEN) and 18 IPEN member groups found toxic per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) chemicals, including globally banned substances, in single-use, paper, cardboard, and plant-based molded fiber food containers and tableware purchased from 17 countries across Africa, Asia, Europe, North America, and Latin America and the Caribbean.

PFAS chemicals have been linked to cancer, infertility, and endocrine disruption. Prior studies have shown that PFAS in food packaging can leach into food and higher levels of PFAS have been found in blood testing of people who regularly eat types of foods that are typically sold in PFAS-containing packaging.

PFAS, called “Forever Chemicals” due to their extreme persistence in the environment, are widely used in food packaging and single-use tableware to confer grease-resistance. But the study found some packaging made without PFAS, demonstrating that alternatives to the toxic substances are available. The findings also show that some leading global food companies sell food in PFAS-free packaging in some countries but continue to use PFAS-tainted wrapping in other countries.

“PFAS are widely used in single-use food packaging and tableware especially for fast food, and people are exposed when they eat PFAS-packaged food. Since fast food is especially popular among youth, and PFAS can disrupt the bodies’ natural hormones, there is a serious concern that young people may be impacted at critical periods of development,” said IPEN’s Global Researcher Jitka Straková, the lead author of the study.

“The food industry needs to quickly phase-out PFAS and governments should move swiftly toward a global ban on PFAS as a group to stop environmental releases of and human exposure to PFAS.”

In the study, food packaged in paper, cardboard, and plant-based molded fiber was purchased and 119 samples of packaging and tableware were tested. Samples were collected from 17 countries: Tunisia, Egypt, Jordan, Kuwait, Morocco, Iraq, Montenegro, Jamaica, Mexico, Argentina, Benin, Zambia, Cameroon, Philippines. Taiwan, Nepal, Nepal, and India. Tests for 58 specific PFAS and for extractable organic fluorine (EOF), a measurement that correlates with the use of any PFAS, were conducted.

Among the groups in South and Southeast Asia that participated in the study were the Environmental and Social Development Organization (Bangladesh), Toxics Link (India), Center for Public Health and Environmental Development (Nepal), EcoWaste Coalition and Interfacing Development Interventions for Sustainability (Philippines), and the Taiwan Watch Institute (Taiwan).

The study found:

  • Of 119 samples tested, 64 (53.8%) contained PFAS or had EOF levels indicating the presence of PFAS.
  • 4 samples had PFAS at levels above EU limits for PFOA and/or for long-chain PFCAs, and 53 samples had PFAS or EOF levels above limits proposed by the EU REACH chemical safety regime.
  • Molded products made from plant-based fibers (e.g. bowls, plates, and food boxes) advertised as biodegradable or compostable consistently had the highest levels of PFAS.
  • Microwave popcorn bags were most likely to contain PFAS among all types of packaging.
  • Twelve samples of non-grease-resistant, recycled paper packaging were tested, with four showing unintentional contamination by PFAS. This demonstrates that recycled paper may pose a threat to a circular economy and may decrease the credibility of recycling.
  • Only 2% of positive sample extracts could be linked with specific PFAS, demonstrating the challenges of chemical traceability and regulation without labeling.

In addition, testing indicated that side chain fluorotelomer-based polymers (SFPs) were used in the products. SFPs are polymeric PFAS, which the testing methods in our study do not detect. However, we can infer that SFPs were used because SFPs are known to degrade and form other toxic PFAS that were detected in the samples. Because side-chain fluorinated polymers can degrade into highly toxic PFAS during the life cycle, they should be subject to the same restrictions as other PFAS. Only a universal ban that includes all polymeric PFAS can stop human exposure to PFAS.

IPEN and its member groups shared the study results with the food companies and asked for their policies on using PFAS but at the time of the release of the report most companies have not provided a substantive response. Legislation that requires labeling chemicals in food contact materials and other products is needed to give consumers information about the safety of the products they buy.

Some PFAS have been regulated globally. Three PFAS and their related substances have been found to be among the most highly toxic chemicals known and are banned globally. But most current approaches look at the thousands of PFAS chemicals one-by-one or in small groups, with each group review taking several years – although Denmark and some US states have regulated PFAS in food contact materials and some have banned PFAS as a class in certain products. However, there are no comprehensive global regulations to protect the environment and human health from all PFAS.

IPEN and their member groups are calling for comprehensive global rules to ban PFAS as a class including polymeric PFAS and for national governments to implement immediate restrictions on the use of PFAS. In addition, governments should produce plans for and fund projects to decontaminate soil and drinking water of communities affected by PFAS pollution.



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