We’re Taking On Toxic PFAS

toxic chemicals_pfas_food packaging_RI_rhode island

What are they?

The acronym PFAS stands for perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl substances, a class of chemicals that have been and are presently used for a variety of purposes. Most notably, they are found in non-stick, water, stain and grease-resistant products.

PFAS are commonly used and highly dangerous. The use of long-chain PFAS in the U.S. is being phased out due to an increased awareness of their harmful effects, yet, the short-chain versions -- or those with a smaller number of carbon fluorine bonds -- are still actively used in consumer products.

Their use in items like food packaging increases the potential for exposure in people. These chemicals can leach out of individual food packaging products into food and beverages. Scientists agree that this is one of the most common ways people are exposed to PFAS.

Why are they harmful?

PFAS are bio-accumulative, meaning that they gradually build up in humans over periods of time. Subsequently, they do not break down through natural means because they are a synthesized non-organic compound with an extremely strong chemical bond.

These chemicals are so persistent that they can be found in 97% of human blood samples, according to a study published in 2017. Similar studies have also detected short-chain PFAS in human organs, suggesting that we may not be able to eliminate these chemicals from our bodies.

PFAS have been linked to several serious health issues, including:

  • kidney and testicular cancer
  • liver malfunction
  • hyroid diseases
  • delayed puberty
  • early menopause in women
  • reduced immune system responses in children
  • birth defects in newborns
  • elevated cholesterol for both producers and consumers of goods containing PFAS

Exposure to PFAS through food packaging is particularly prevalent in low income communities because they often lack access to affordable or good quality fresh food.

Environmental Concerns

PFAS chemicals not only bioaccumulate in our bodies, they travel through the environment and are impacting soil, water, and even wildlife as far away as the Arctic.  While there are numerous ways PFAS get into the environment, industrial spills and the use of PFAS containing products are major causes.  PFAS containing disposable food packaging or containers not only result in mountains of waste, they can leach the toxic chemicals into groundwater (from landfills) or end up contaminating compost.  Consequently, removing PFAS from these products not only protects the food they contain, but the crops we grow, our drinking water, and the environment as a whole.

What can we do?

The first thing we need to do is identify products that contain PFAS so we can make the right choices! Clean Water Action California has launched a comprehensive PFAS campaign focused on stopping the use of PFAS at the source so that humans and the environment are not impacted.  We are starting with protecting our food!  This year CWA is co-sponsoring AB 958 (Ting), which will require that all food packaging and cookware that contain any PFAS chemicals must be labelled.

A 2017 peer reviewed study of fast good wrapping demonstrated that alternatives to PFAS coated packaging exist and are being used by some companies.  However, consumers don’t know whether the food they are eating is wrapped or served in PFAS coated materials or if their pots, pans, or baking sheets contain the chemicals.  Nor do municipalities that want to reduce waste by allowing takeout food containers to be composted. AB 958 will fix that with a clear label that allows consumers and composting programs to protect themselves.  It will also allow food companies and restaurants choose less harmful products as well.

PFAS should never be used in food packaging or cookware. AB 958 is the first important step in California to make sure we eradicate these toxic chemicals.