PFAS in food packaging
Certain PFAS chemicals are found in food packaging. Some PFAS have known human toxicity and tend to accumulate in the human body. As such, migration of PFAS from food packaging into food has raised concerns about the risk to human health.
What are PFAS?
PFAS, or per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, are a class of nearly 5,000 man-made chemicals containing at least one fully fluorinated carbon atom. PFAS are highly durable and resistant to grease, oil, water and heat, and are therefore used in a variety of industrial and consumer products such as adhesives, cosmetics, cleaning products, firefighting foams, water- and oil-repellent coatings for fabrics and paper, and in paints and other coatings for industrial products. These chemicals are also used in non-stick cookware, small appliances and components of food processing equipment (e.g. gaskets, sealants and filters).
Presence in food packaging
Paper-based packaging for certain food products is often treated with PFAS, primarily PFAS polymers (large molecules with many repeating units), to provide water and grease resistance. Packaging examples include food wrappers, paper/moulded fibre serviceware, take-out food containers, pizza boxes, microwaveable popcorn bags, bakery bags, cake plates, bakery paper and single-use plates.
The PFAS compounds that are added to packaging are not compounds of health concern, such as the “long chain” compounds known as perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) and perfluorooctane sulfonic acid (PFOS). “Long chain” in this case means eight carbons in length as opposed to fluorinated polymers that have many repeating units of these smaller molecules. PFOA and PFOS have been identified to be hazardous to human health causing increased cholesterol levels and other serious health issues such as cancer, thyroid hormone disruption and adverse effects on the immune system. PFOA and PFOS were historically introduced into foods from food packaging additives as impurities or degradants of these larger polymeric materials. Due to health concerns, PFOA- and PFOS-based additives have since been banned from use in the U.S. and Canada.
Other PFAS chemicals, often polymers that are made with fewer hazardous “short chain” compounds (“short chain” meaning six carbons or less for fluorinated carboxylic acids) have been approved by the FDA and Health Canada for use in food contact materials and found to be safe for their intended use. This safety assessment, which has been recognized in recently published literature and the media, considers the migration of impurities and degradation products into food. Based on the assessment, the concentration of PFAS that may migrate is at levels that do not result in adverse health effects. However, even though current exposure to these compounds has been determined to be safe, their persistence and potential to build up in the body is raising concerns for adverse health effects. In fact, grease-resistant wrappers and box liners are thought to be responsible for a significant amount of exposure to PFAS. In addition, migration of these chemicals may increase with higher temperatures, longer contact time and in the presence of emulsified fats. Further, PFAS-treated packaging can end up in landfills or in compost and break down into the non-degradable short-chain fluorinated compounds over time, where they can contaminate soil and water, be taken up by crops or migrate into drinking water sources.
As a result of concern for PFAS exposure, the United States House of Representatives passed the National Defense Authorization Act that calls for the removal of all PFAS compounds used in the military, including use in food packaging. Washington State has passed a law to ban all PFAS compounds in paper-based food packaging by January 2022. The FDA is currently focused on assessing environmental contamination of foods for PFAS and reviewing the uses of PFAS in food contact applications.
Recent public awareness of PFAS exposure from food contact materials is causing consumer concern. There is active research into PFAS replacements or alternative types of food packaging that still provide the desired functionality. There also continues to be research and analysis of foods to help identify and prioritize activities to reduce PFAS in food. It is important to be informed about these compounds and the associated exposure from food packaging in order to have a better understanding of potential health risks from PFAS chemicals.