If you’ve eaten takeout or fast food in the last few years or used long-lasting cosmetics, there’s a good chance you got a little something extra with your order: PFAS chemicals—Perfluorooctanoic acid. Better known as forever chemicals, here’s what you need to know about these toxins.
What are PFAS?
A 2020 report published by Toxic-Free Future found that many major fast-food corporations likely serve your food in PFAS coated packaging. Often found in pizza boxes, food wrappers, takeout containers, and paperboard packaging, PFAS chemicals are most often used in fast-food restaurants to prevent grease or food from sticking to containers.
Another report, published earlier this year, also found PFAS in a number of top cosmetics products marketed as long-lasting.
The chemical characteristics of PFAS make them prevalent in a multitude of industries as well. Products that are advertised as “grease-proof, stain-resistant, fire-retardant, non-stick, or water-repellent” likely contain PFAS.
According to recent toxicity studies, these chemicals can seep into our food and beverages and also make their way back to people and animals through water, food, and air. Exposure to PFAS has been linked to certain cancers, thyroid disease, high cholesterol, damaged immune system response, and other adverse health problems in humans.
Manufacturing titans, Daikin and DuPont, knew about the potential dangers of a PFAS chemical used since 2010 in food packaging, but hid them from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, according to company studies obtained by The Guardian. (For more info on corporations hiding the dangers of PFAS, and to better understand this prevalent pollution, please watch the documentary, The Devil We Know.)
Tennessee Riverkeeper filed a lawsuit against Daikin and 3M in 2016.
As of this year, Burger King, McDonald’s, and Wendy’s allegedly still use PFAS in some food packaging. Even containers from more “health-minded” chains also appeared to contain PFAS, according to Toxic-Free Future. McDonald’s claims to have stopped using the long-chain PFOA and PFOS compounds in 2008, but Consumer Reports has revealed that packaging for both the Big Mac (and the Burger King Whopper) both “appeared to be PFAS-treated,” meaning they likely contain these newer “short-chain alternative” PFAS chemicals.
These chemical corporations continue to claim that short-chain PFAS compounds are safe and “practically non-toxic.” They have placed the burden of studying them and proving their danger onto the public. Unfortunately, US government officials do not require robust and broad research on safety before approving PFAS chemicals, and the government does little to investigate chemical safety, once they are released into the public. Independent researchers continue to discover that PFAS, regardless of long-chain or short-chain, accumulate in the environment, animals, and humans, and are toxic.
People who eat more meals at home have lower levels of harmful PFAS chemicals in their bodies, than those who eat fast food and take out often, according to a recent study by the Silent Spring Institute.
The chemical called 6:2 FTOH, or 6:2 fluorotelomer alcohol, was developed by Daikin and approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) in 2009. The US government approved the chemical for use in food packaging, basing their decision partly on Daikin’s studies that suggested that the chemical was non-toxic. Ten years later, two independent researchers, discovered that Daikin had withheld studies from the FDA suggesting toxicity concerns.
Science Direct describes exposure to 6:2 FTOH as:
“The general population is exposed to 6:2 FTOH by inhalation of evaporates from treated surfaces or ambient concentrations in air, ingestion of indoor dust, or ingestion of food packaged in materials containing PFAS.”
6:2 FTOH is now linked to serious health issues. Science from the FDA, independent researchers, and even industry is showing this PFAS compound can cause cancer, liver damage, kidney disease, neurological damage, developmental problems, and autoimmune disorders. Since 2018, several studies by the FDA and industry have concluded that the chemical may stay in the human body for years and could be more toxic than the companies had previously suggested.
The EPA and federal government continue to fail the public by not regulating and limiting this entire family of chemicals. States and smaller government agencies are stepping forward to address the problem and safeguard public health. Several states have prohibited PFAS in food packaging including Washington, Maine, New York, and Vermont. The National Defense Authorization Act for FY 2020 also bans PFAS in food packaging for military meals after October 1, 2021.
Reducing the amount of PFAS in single-use items like food containers can lower PFAS contamination in the environment by reducing the amount of these chemicals in landfills. PFAS compounds are so dangerous and powerful that their concentration is measured in parts per trillion not parts per billion. Even a tiny amount can be dangerous and detrimental to a waterway. Landfills are a significant source of PFAS pollution entering the environment. Chemicals seep out of landfills untreated, where it flows into our nearest creeks and rivers and can enter the water supply. Most municipal wastewater treatment plants cannot treat PFAS chemicals, so they are often released in our water from these sewage plants or biosolids. Biosolids is another name for human waste and waste used as fertilizers, which can run off into nearby waterways untreated.
The prevalence of PFAS chemicals in people and the environment, as well as the lack of independent research on their harm, is illustrative of a government system that has been captured by the industries it is supposed to regulate.
[SOURCES: US EPA, US FDA, The Guardian, Consumer Reports, MLive.com, Silent Spring Institute, Toxic Free Future, Food Safety News, Environmental Working Group.]