There’s a class of chemicals that the Center for Disease Control has concluded is present in the bloodstreams of almost every American. These chemicals are so environmentally pervasive that they’ve even recently been measured in remote areas of the Arctic.
This chemical group is commonly known as PFAS, which stands for per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances. In August 2019, the Environmental Working Group and Northeastern University mapped out 712 PFAS contamination sites across 49 states, including industrial plants, commercial airports, and firefighting training sites. The chemicals can seep into groundwater, and therefore drinking water, causing a widespread health crisis.
At the same time, the New Food Economy published a harrowing investigation into the ubiquity of PFAS in our paper food wraps and fiber takeout containers, reporting the presence of PFAS in results from lab tests on 18 fiber-based bowls from eight different New York City fast-casual restaurants.
So what exactly are PFAS — and why are they so bad for us?
PFAS compounds, of which there are over 4,000, have no known half-life. They contain carbon-fluorine bonds, which are so strong that they resist heat, grease, water, and stains more easily than most other chemical compounds. Which is purportedly why, for decades, they have been permitted by the FDA for use in a number of industry and direct-to-consumer applications, from non-stick pans (remember Teflon?) to microwavable popcorn bags. Even the growing number of compostable food containers entering the takeout market have been allowed to contain PFAS until now, which means that PFAS were destined to migrate into commercial compost.
Until the New Food Economy study was published in August, the Biodegradable Products Institute (BPI) mimicked the FDA’s PFAS guidelines for compostable fast-food packaging, resulting in toxic levels of PFAS showing up in San Francisco compost. San Francisco is the only city in the U.S. to date with well-established organics recycling infrastructure with service to the commercial sector.
Decades of non-stick and non-staining
Since the 1940s, PFAS have been used on stain-resistant fabrics, fire retardants, and pizza boxes—and because they are in our food containers, they are in our bodies.
The first well-known fluorochemical application was the Teflon non-stick pan, which used perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA), part of the PFAS family. Research suggests that the presence of PFOA in our food supply contributed to low-weight births, which peaked in the US in 2007–08, and declined by 2013–14, the year after PFOA was banned.
One study suggested that exposure to PFAS can suppress a body’s response to vaccines. Another gives epidemiologic evidence for impacts on cancer, immune function, metabolic outcomes, and neurodevelopment.
The long and the short of it
Over a decade ago, longer PFAS molecules (typically made up of eight carbon atoms) were proven to be hazardous to both humans and the environment, linked to thyroid conditions, reproductive issues, and various forms of cancer. In the last five years, long-chain PFAS have not only been banned from use, but also from import and manufacture.
But for many applications, in what seems like a chemical sleight of hand, long-chain PFAS have just been replaced with short-chain PFAS (six or fewer carbons).
Even with bans on specific fluorochemical compounds, the U.S. falls behind on sweeping chemical regulations in general, favoring manufacturers over consumers. Industry interests take the front seat, aided by regulations that give the EPA just 90 days to prove a product’s harm. Of 40,000+ chemicals on the market, the EPA has banned six.
The EU offers an example to emulate: in just the cosmetics industry, the EU has banned or restricted over 1,300 chemicals while the U.S. has curbed 11. Parabens and coal tar dyes, both found in make-up here, have essentially disappeared on the other side of the Atlantic.
The EU follows Reach (Registration, Evaluation, Authorisation and Restriction of Chemicals), requiring manufacturers to prove a product’s safety before it hits the market. Even though the U.S. has a similar measure in place, it doesn’t apply to toxins already on the shelves and in our bodies.
How did PFAS end up in the “eco” bowl anyway?
Cellulose is a wonderful solution to temporary packaging — when it’s not laced with toxins. To be sure, the solution is not to return to plastic or styrofoam, which bring their own slew of problems for the human body, for animals, and for the environment.
Here’s how PFAS made its way into the “eco-friendly” bowl we have come to know:
Fiber containers are made by thermoforming. Bagasse (sugar cane cellulose that is leftover after sugar has been processed), bamboo cellulose, or wood pulp is mixed with water and occasionally starch, and heated in industrial vats to make a thick slurry. The liquid is then injected into aluminum or steel molds and hot-pressed into the shape of the container. Once the liquid has steamed away, you are left with a rigid shape.
PFAS have been added to the slurry to help the resulting container resist oil staining and moisture leakage. To make an effective container without PFAS, there are a number of safe options. When compostable cellulose containers designed to contain hot and moist foods, oils, or liquids are thermoformed without any additives, they can be safely coated or laminated. Non-toxic, non-petroleum coatings can be made from vegetable waxes like corn or rapeseed. Non-toxic laminations can be made from non-toxic compostable materials like PLA cast film.
BPI has now updated its requirements to reflect an outright ban of all PFAS in any form.
To be BPI certified non-toxic and compostable, all food containers must be PFAS-free, and contain no added fluorochemicals.
To convert a thermoforming facility to a PFAS-free facility, manufacturers must clean their equipment many times over, testing and re-testing the resulting containers, as fluorines are so persistent once they have been introduced. Hence the nickname forever chemicals.
Awareness shouldn’t lead to despair. Instead, consider it the beginning of big change. Towards transparency, for one.
In February of this year, the EPA published its PFAS Action Plan, which, among other efforts, highlights the EPA’s plan to develop toxicity values for GenX chemicals and PFBS (short-chain PFAS). These values are intended to help inform risk management decisions moving forward.
The BPI has rewritten the certification guidelines for compostable containers and is working with BPI-certified manufacturers to make the change.
When we resort to the use of harmful chemicals to avoid the perceived inconveniences created by staining, leaking, and sticking, we are engaged in a tradeoff with far reaching consequences. Wholesome solutions exist, and while they are possibly less convenient, more difficult to scale, or more expensive in the short term, the cost of the fallout of failing to take health into account when making these tradeoffs(a toxic water supply, an unhealthy newborn population) is arguably much greater.
We ought to move forward together, calling for the accountability and transparency from our favorite businesses, asking them to certify non-toxicity and starting conversations that can lead to change. And maybe, as a collective, we can redefine concepts of ‘convenience,’ and of corporate and regulatory responsibility.