What worrying chemicals are in your food?

What worrying chemicals are in your food?

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Hazardous chemicals that persist indefinitely in the ecosystem have no place in a circular economy. Brand owners using packaging materials containing por and polyfluoroalkyl (PFAS), for example, should look for better replacements to ensure the health and safety of consumers and the environment.

By Elizabeth Ritch

Polyfluoroalkyl and oral substances (PFAS) have received a great deal of criticism recently from environmental groups and the media. Do you know what they are and if they are on the packaging of the products you sell?

PFAS are a large family of chemicals that share a similar structure; all are based on a backbone of carbon and fluorine bonds, which are stable and persistent in the environment. These chemicals have been widely used for commercial and industrial applications, including water, oil, and stain repellent fabrics, non-stick products, and fire fighting foams.

PFAS are also widely used in food packaging, where they provide resistance to water and grease. A 2017 study found widespread use of fluorinated chemicals in bread and dessert wrappers, hamburger and sandwich wrappers, and food cartons, and the Center for Environmental Health found PFAS in 100% of popcorn bags and molded fiber foods they tested.

Certain PFASs based on an eight-carbon chain (such as perfluorooctanoic acid [PFOA] and perfluorooctanesulfonic acid [PFOS], also known as C8 chemicals) have been widely used for decades and have been associated with high cholesterol, ulcerative colitis, disease thyroid, testicular cancer, kidney cancer, and pregnancy-induced hypertension and pre-eclampsia. These particular chemicals are no longer manufactured in the United States, following a phase-out initiative led by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). However, due to the strength and stability of the carbon-fluorine bond, they are highly persistent in the environment, so people are still exposed to them through drinking water and other sources.

When C8 PFAS was phased out, chemical suppliers and product manufacturers looked for replacement chemicals that would provide similar performance, particularly for water, grease, and stain resistance. Many turned to shorter chain PFASs that were structurally similar to the ones that had been removed, but contained fewer carbon atoms, such as GenX (made by DuPont and its successor Chemours).

Unfortunately, these replacement PFAS are based on the same extremely stable carbon-fluorine bonds, which means they are also very persistent in the environment. Although less toxicity data is available on these newer chemicals, they have been associated with liver and kidney damage, and animal studies suggest an association with higher rates of certain cancers. The replacement of long-chain PFAS by short-chain PFAS appears to be a regrettable case of substitution: the substitute chemical may have similar health problems or be only marginally better than the original.

Short chain PFAS are still approved by the US Food and Drug Administration for use in food contact packaging. This is a problem because PFAS can migrate from one container to another and because the chemicals persist after the end of the package's useful life. PFAS have been detected in landfill leachate and wastewater biosolids. When biosolids are applied to agricultural fields, PFAS can be absorbed by crops and enter the food supply. In fact, the short chain PFAS that are currently on the market are actually more mobile in the environment than the long chain PFAS that they replaced. Since all PFAS are so persistent, including the newer short chain PFAS, the more we use them, the more it will end up in the environment - all the more reason to avoid them in the first place.

Increasingly, advocacy groups, the public, and regulators recognize that substitute PFAS are not the solution. Recently, Washington State became the first in the country to ban all PFAS from fiber-based food packaging. The ban will go into effect on January 1, 2022, provided the Washington Department of Ecology identifies safer alternatives by January 1, 2020. In SPC Impact in April 2018, Jen Jackson of the San Francisco said the city of San Francisco is implementing procurement strategies and considering possible ordinances to support markets in serving compostable foods without PFAS.

While some progressive jurisdictions are beginning to take action, the fact is that regulations don't always keep up with the latest information on chemical hazards in packaging. So how can brands make sure they are part of the solution?

Malene Teller Blume, Quality Manager at Coop Denmark, Denmark's largest retailer, shared her company's story on SPC Impact. In September 2014, in light of growing evidence of PFAS damage, the company decided to ban PFAS from all of its private label products. At the time, they couldn't find bags of non-microwave popcorn with PFAS, so in 2015 they stopped selling microwave popcorn in their stores until a safer alternative could be found. In less than six months, PFAS microwave-free popcorn bags were back in stores, and the positive publicity received from their strong public stance more than made up for the loss in sales.

Brands that enact comprehensive and proactive policies to remove chemicals of concern from their packaging will be better positioned both to deal with PFAS now, as well as the next emerging chemical of concern. Given how little we know about many of the chemicals in trade today, it is almost certain that more problematic chemicals will come to light.

Safer alternatives exist, and now is the time for companies to take action. Companies must ensure that they understand what chemicals are in the products and packages they sell, and what the risks are associated with those chemicals, to avoid replacing a dangerous chemical with an equally dangerous substitute. Hazardous chemicals that persist indefinitely in the environment have no place in a circular economy.

Original article (In English)

  • Elizabeth Ritch joined GreenBlue, the parent organization of the Sustainable Packaging Coalition, in May 2016 as a project associate focusing on the CleanGredients program. Ritch has a BA in Environmental Thinking, Practice, and Physics from the University of Virginia.

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