In the 1930s, a research chemist accidentally created polytetrafluorethylene (PTFE). The discovery put him in the National Inventors Hall of Fame when PTFE was later commercialized under the trade name Teflon.
Nobody anticipated the impact this invention would have on the world.
It was the first-ever compound in the family now known as per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS). Many PFAS possess unique properties that make them resistant to grease, oil, water and heat. For this reason, they have been used in a wide range of industrial and consumer products. Today there are nearly 5,000 types of PFAS that have been identified.
More than 50 years after the first compound was unexpectedly created, these synthetic chemicals are in the spotlight for a completely different reason.
What do PFAS and your favorite packaged foods have in common?
Fast forward to the present day. Packaged food has become one of the most convenient ways to get dinner on the table after a long day of work. The problem is convenience seems to come with a price.
Because of its nonstick nature and ability to repel grease and water, PFAS is often used in food packaging. Studies have found this has been one of the pathways of PFAS entering our foods and food supply.1-2 These chemicals leach out of the packaging as it comes in contact with our food. It’s because of PFAS’ persistent nature; the chemical either stays in our bodies or moves through the environment when you dispose of food packages.
Typical PFAS exposure pathways. Image source: European Environment Agency (EEA)
Of course, based on the image above, you can see there are many other PFAS human and environment exposure pathways. However, this article will focus on PFAS in food contact materials (FCMs). If you’re interested to learn about tracing PFAS in drinking water read this blog.
PFAS in food contact materials
PFAS in food contact materials (FCMs) consists of a broad range of chemical classes. Other than the typical C8 carboxylate and sulfonate species perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) and perfluorooctane sulfonate (PFOS) classes; fluorotelomer alcohols (FTOHs), polyfluoroalkyl phosphate esters (PAPs), as well as other chain lengths of the carboxylates and sulfonates tend to be in FCMs.2
Why has PFAS become one of the most widely researched chemicals in food and environmental science this century? Numerous studies have linked bioaccumulation of certain PFAS to a range of serious health problems.3-6
Of course, with all these potential health risks and mainstream media attention, government entities and regulators are beginning to take measures to protect consumers.
Many states in the US are actively addressing PFAS contamination issues.7-11 Among them, Washington state banned12-13 fluorinated chemicals from FCMs as part of the Toxics in Packaging Law (RCW 70.95G). The law initially expected to be enforced in January 2022 but may be delayed.
On a federal level, long-chain PFAS are being phased out by the industry and manufacturers. This is following an increased scrutiny by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and other groups, pushing for replacement chemicals that provide similar performance have been introduced. These PFAS replacements may be based on a short-chain backbone or different functional moieties. However, these chemicals fundamentally are based around the same carbon-fluorine bonds and therefore may pose similar health concerns and environmental persistence. So, as more research needs to be conducted, at this point, it does seem like a bleak solution. Nevertheless, the EPA is actively researching and implementing recommendations through the EPA’s PFAS Action.
From a food stance, the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is reviewing the authorized use of PFAS in food contact applications. For now, PFAS are still authorized by the FDA for use on paper or cardboard food packaging. This is because when impregnated to paper and board, PFAS prevents grease and water from soaking through. It is predominantly used in microwave popcorn bags, takeout containers like those used at a self-service salad and hot bars, and fast food wrappers such as sandwich wrappers, french fry bags and pizza boxes.
Across Europe, several countries have set national PFAS limit values. In 2010, the European Commission issued the Commission Recommendation 2010/161/EU to monitor PFAS in food with the limits of quantification (LOQ) of 1 μg/kg.14 Even so, Denmark has taken greater action; becoming the first country to outright ban PFAS-treated FCMs in June 2019.
It seems like there is now a massive, industry-wide effort to remove PFAS food contact products and come up with safe alternatives. Many food companies have proactively pushed to switch to alternative packaging. Lawmakers are also under pressure and a patchwork of the new legislation is slowly coming into effect. But in the meantime, lawmakers, food manufacturers and food testing labs must focus on ensuring that PFAS in food are within permissible limits.
One thing I know personally from reading this study of regulatory guidelines and legal limits, some of the most-studied PFAS chemicals have decreased substantially since they first were proposed a decade ago.15 Promising perhaps, but the researchers also advise caution when considering PFAS replacement chemicals.
If you’re interested to learn about analytical techniques available to test for PFAS and its precursors effectively, read this blog.
- Susmann, Herbert P., et al. “Dietary Habits Related to Food Packaging and Population Exposure to PFASs.” Environmental Health Perspectives, vol. 127, no. 10, 2019, p. 107003., doi:10.1289/ehp4092.
- Schaider, Laurel A., et al. “Fluorinated Compounds in U.S. Fast Food Packaging.” Environmental Science & Technology Letters, vol. 4, no. 3, 2017, pp. 105–111., doi:10.1021/acs.estlett.6b00435.
- “PFAS Health Effects.” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 21 Jan. 2020, www.atsdr.cdc.gov/pfas/health-effects.html.
- Knutsen, Helle Katrine, et al. “Risk to Human Health Related to the Presence of Perfluorooctane Sulfonic Acid and Perfluorooctanoic Acid in Food.” EFSA Journal, vol. 16, no. 12, 2018, doi:10.2903/j.efsa.2018.5194.
- Calafat, Antonia M., et al. “Polyfluoroalkyl Chemicals in the U.S. Population: Data from the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES) 2003–2004 and Comparisons with NHANES 1999–2000.” Environmental Health Perspectives, vol. 115, no. 11, 2007, pp. 1596–1602., doi:10.1289/ehp.10598.
- Land, Magnus, et al. “What Is the Effect of Phasing out Long-Chain per- and Polyfluoroalkyl Substances on the Concentrations of Perfluoroalkyl Acids and Their Precursors in the Environment? A Systematic Review Protocol.” Environmental Evidence, vol. 4, no. 1, 2015, p. 3., doi:10.1186/2047-2382-4-3.
- NH PFAS Investigation, New Hampshire Department of Environmental Services, 16 Aug. 2019, www4.des.state.nh.us/nh-pfas-investigation.
- “Poly- and Per-Fluoroalkyl Substances (PFAS): Division of Public Health Services: New Hampshire Department of Health and Human Services.” Poly- and Per-Fluoroalkyl Substances (PFAS) | Division of Public Health Services | New Hampshire Department of Health and Human Services, www.dhhs.nh.gov/dphs/pfcs/index.htm.
- EGLE – Environmental Rules Review Committee, Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy, www.michigan.gov/egle/0,9429,7-135-3306_88771_91874—,00.html.
- Kounang, Nadia. “FDA Confirms PFAS Chemicals Are in the US Food Supply.” CNN, Cable News Network, 3 June 2019, www.cnn.com/2019/06/03/health/pfas-food-supply-fda/index.html.
- United States, Congress, “Food Packaging with Perfluoroalkyl and Polyfluoroalkyl Substances (PFASs).” Food Packaging with Perfluoroalkyl and Polyfluoroalkyl Substances (PFASs), 2019. https://dtsc.ca.gov/wp-content/uploads/sites/31/2019/10/Food-Packaging_Perfluoroalkyl-and-Polyfluoroalkyl-Substances-PFASs.pdf
- “Washington State Moves to Eliminate Exceptions for PFAS Firefighting Foam Ban.” Chemical Watch, chemicalwatch.com/88895/washington-state-moves-to-eliminate-exceptions-for-pfas-firefighting-foam-ban.
- Carignan, Sylvia. “Washington State Expands Search for PFAS-Free Food Containers.” Bloomberg Environment & Energy Report, news.bloombergenvironment.com/environment-and-energy/washington-state-expands-search-for-pfas-free-food-containers.
- “Perfluoroalkylated Substances in Food: Occurrence and Dietary Exposure.” EFSA Journal, vol. 10, no. 6, 2012, doi:10.2903/j.efsa.2012.2743.
- Grandjean, Philippe. “Delayed Discovery, Dissemination, and Decisions on Intervention in Environmental Health: a Case Study on Immunotoxicity of Perfluorinated Alkylate Substances.” Environmental Health, vol. 17, no. 1, 2018, doi:10.1186/s12940-018-0405-y.