Toxic PFAS chemicals used in packaging can end up in food, study finds

Compostable packaging is popular for environmental reasons, but it can be treated with ‘forever chemicals’ linked to health problems

A group of toxic PFAS chemicals that industry has claimed is safe to use in food packaging are concerning and present a health threat because they can break off and end up in food and drinks, a new peer-reviewed study finds.

The subgroup of PFAS, called “fluorotelomers”, have been billed as a safe replacement for a first generation of PFAS compounds now largely phased out of production in the US, Canada and the EU because of their high toxicity.

But the Guardian revealed in 2021 how chemical manufacturers had hid research showing that fluorotelomers may also be highly toxic, and the new study highlights how the compounds can move from packaging into food. Researchers say the paper highlights the need to ban the use of PFAS in food packaging.

“The continued use of PFAS in food packaging should be questioned given opportunities for the chemicals’ release and exposure,” the study’s authors wrote.

PFAS, or per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, are a class of about 14,000 chemicals often used to make products resistant to water, stains and heat. They are called “forever chemicals” because they do not naturally break down, and they are linked to cancer, liver problems, thyroid issues, birth defects, kidney disease, decreased immunity and other serious health problems.

For decades, the chemicals have been added to paper wrappers, bags, plates, cups and other food packaging to help repel grease and water that would otherwise deteriorate the products. The chemicals are also added to some plastic food packaging as a barrier to prevent spoilage, and are especially common in the type of molded fiber bowls often marketed as “green” and “compostable”.

The US Food and Drug Administration in 2020 reached a “voluntary agreement” with some packaging producers to a five-year phaseout of 6:2 FTOH, a fluorotelomer regularly used in food packaging, after the agency learned that chemical manufacturers had hid evidence of its toxicity.