Since they were developed around the middle of last century, PFAS have been hailed by multiple industries as miracle chemicals. Not only could they stop rain from soaking through fabric, but they could also prevent eggs from sticking to pans and repel grease that would otherwise seep through fast food wrappers.
In short, they have made eating more convenient, but a growing body of science suggests that PFAS, or per and polyfluoroalkyl substances, are toxic and linked to serious health problems, and chemical companies have hidden internal science showing their dangers.
In recent years, testing has found the chemicals in a range of foods, but the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) continues to allow companies to use PFAS in food packaging, cookware, and processing equipment.
That could soon change. A new piece of legislation that will likely be introduced in the coming weeks by Representative Debbie Dingell (D-Michigan) would largely enact a federal ban on the chemicals’ use in food production and packaging.
“We know that PFAS builds up in your blood, it damages health, it causes cancer, and it’s a really dangerous chemical,” Dingell told Civil Eats. “And most people don’t realize that it’s in their food containers.”
PFAS are a class of 9,000 compounds dubbed “forever chemicals” because they don’t ever fully break down in nature. They are typically used to make products water-, stain-, and grease-resistant. They’re so effective that they’re used across dozens of industries in everything from cosmetics to waterproof clothing, Scotchgard, and firefighting foam. Their ubiquity has led to contamination of drinking water supplies for more than 110 million people nationwide.
Until 2020, PFAS were also in every “biodegradable” molded fiber packaging product, including the clam shells commonly used at restaurants such as Chipotle and Sweetgreen. They’re also regularly used in food wrappers, paper plates, and paper straws, among other products. It’s difficult to differentiate between paper products coated with PFAS and those coated with bioplastics, but the latter don’t contain the chemicals.
Research has shown that the compounds can leach into food, while PFAS researchers at the Silent Spring Institute found an association between elevated levels of the chemicals in humans and increases in the number of meals eaten outside the home. There’s now growing consensus that lawmakers must act to get PFAS out of food.
“There are so many ways that we’re exposed to PFAS, but our food is probably the primary route of exposure,” said Scott Faber, legislative director for public health advocate Environmental Working Group. “Unfortunately, the FDA has for too long ignored the risks of PFAS, even though their dangers are well documented and well understood.So, Congress must act because the FDA has simply failed to do so.”
Federal regulators allow companies to claim the chemicals’ use as a trade secret, so there’s little public information about which products contain them. But independent analyses have revealed how widely they’re used. Recent testing of more than 300 fast food sandwich wrappers, pastry bags, French fry bags, pizza boxes, and other paper and paperboard packaging found fluorine, a marker of PFAS, in 40 percent of samples. Similarly, a 2017 Toxic Free Future study detected their likely use in 13 percent of grocery stores’ deli and bakery packaging, and testing found fluorine in all molded fiber products.
Beyond carryout food packaging, PFAS can also be found in the packaging that holds items ranging from microwave popcorn to salami. They’re used as lubricants in the machinery that produces packaging, which unintentionally leaves traces of PFAS. They’re also commonly found in baking supplies, such as parchment paper. And the nonstick coatings on frying pans, crock pots, panini presses, aluminum foil, and more often contain PFAS.
The chemicals’ widespread use in the food industry frustrates Maricel Maffini, an independent researcher who studies PFAS in food packaging, because good alternatives are increasingly available.
“A valid question is, ‘Do we really need to use this type of toxic, persistent chemical in food packaging? Is that an essential use?’ I would say it’s not,” she said.
‘It Will Move’
Rep. Dingell’s bill, called the Keep Food Containers Safe From PFAS Act, is her second attempt at a ban on the chemicals’ use in food contact surfaces. A 2020 bill of the same name was one of more than 100 pieces of PFAS legislation introduced in Congress last session that would’ve enacted limits on the compounds’ use, and nearly all failed amid intense opposition from the chemical industry.
The broadest of them was the PFAS Action Act, which had bipartisan support in both chambers; it was passed in the House by a wide margin but filibustered in the Senate. The Trump administration had promised a veto.
Its failure highlights the difficulty in moving PFAS legislation past industry allies in Congress, but the political environment is friendlier this legislative session as Democrats control both chambers and President Joe Biden has called for stricter regulations.
“It’s a different time, different place, people care, and it will move,” Dingell said. “I’m hopeful that with a Democratic administration and an EPA administrator who recognizes the chemicals’ danger, we will get this through.”
Though Republicans in the Senate could again use a filibuster to stop legislation, Faber and Dingell say that there is now a greater sense of urgency around the chemicals’ use than there was just a few years back.
“There is literally no chemical that’s getting more attention by legislators than PFAS, so, regardless of party, they’re aware and concerned that PFAS is building up in the blood of millions of people,” Faber said.
One of Congress’ few PFAS successes last session was a ban on their use in military food packaging that was included in the National Defense Authorization Act. States have also taken action in the absence of federal legislation, with Washington, Vermont, New Hampshire, and Maine passing PFAS bans. Similar bills have momentum in Connecticut and California and have been introduced in about 10 other states.
Meanwhile, restaurant and grocery chains that collectively represent nearly 80,000 stores, including Chipotle, Wendy’s, Whole Foods Market, and McDonald’s, have removed or committed to limiting PFAS in their products. Food packaging companies have begun to do the same.
The market movement and state laws are key to success in passing a federal ban, Faber said. “Oftentimes, Congress will act to bring consistency instead of winding up with inconsistent laws,” he added.
‘Not an Easy Fix’
A federal PFAS ban would accelerate the already growing demand for alternatives, but finding replacements is a time-consuming and costly undertaking.
In 2016, the Biodegradable Products Institute (BPI), a nonprofit that certifies packaging as compostable, began internally discussing whether it should stop certifying plant-based products made with PFAS. The rationale: It was contaminating compost streams.
The discussion spurred development of alternatives among compostable packaging manufacturers such as World Centric. “It’s a difficult issue—not an easy fix,” said Aseem Das, founder of World Centric, which has spent more than a year experimenting with PFAS substitutes.
PFAS made it easy to manufacture World Centric’s molded fiber products: It added PFAS to a slurry that was formed into the bowl or product, providing water, grease, and heat resistance. For its PFAS-free products, World Centric had to change its approach to incorporate a 100 percent plant-based spray coating that’s applied post-production.
Developing the coating was one challenge, and changing the manufacturing process was another because it requires more steps and cost. It took World Centric about a year of manufacturing trials, pilot production, adjusting machinery, and generally ramping up its output to be able to produce millions of PFAS-free products to meet demand.
Once the products are ready for full production, the changes then must be made at the multiple manufacturing facilities with which World Centric works. While some molded fiber bowls in its catalog are already made without PFAS, about 90 percent of its products will likely be PFAS-free by the year’s end. Das wouldn’t disclose what’s in the alternative but said it’s 100 percent plant-based.
BPI now certifies World Centric’s PFAS-free molded fiber products as compostable. The challenges the company faced to find a replacement are common, said BPI executive director Rhodes Yepsen. Besides providing a grease and water barrier in molded fiber packaging, PFAS also allows moisture to escape, which prevents food from getting soggy. For that reason, Yepsen said, PFAS “is a hard one to replace.”
BPI has recently tightened up its certification protocol and is better prepared to identify potentially problematic chemicals, Yepsen added.
Among the alternatives are bioplastics and waxes. And while Das noted that World Centric is using FDA-approved ingredients, public health advocates like Maffini cautioned that little is known about the safety profiles of the alternatives. Meanwhile, the FDA won’t make that information public either, as most companies are allowed to claim new formulas as trade secrets.
That’s created some uncertainty about whether the agency is protecting the public, Maffini said. “I hope that they’re learning from the PFAS story.”
civileats.com, 3 June 2021