Non-polymer PFAS can build up in blood protein of animals, and is not always removed quickly. This means that predators eating PFAS-contaminated food will have higher levels in their bloodstream, and concentrations can increase up the food chain. Studies suggest that build up of PFAS is similar to those of other Persistent Organic Pollutants such as DDT.PFAS are estimated to be settling in arctic regions at rates of tens to hundreds of kilograms per year (25-850kg per year), depending on the specific PFAS chemical in question. Certain PFAS are released as gases to the environment and are blown a long way by wind and air currents in the atmosphere,. These gas PFAS will over time degrade to more persistent chemicals like PFOS and PFOA. This may be one reason why PFAS of environmental concern have been found in remote regions such as the Arctic as well as near PFAS production sitesPFAS including PFOS and PFOA have been found in air samples around Europe. The chemicals are found in small quantities, but appear in almost all samples tested. PFAS enters the atmosphere both from factories and the air inside our homes. PFAS is found in treated waste water from industrial and domestic sources and has been found in both rivers and groundwater. Conventional drinking water processes will not remove PFAS.PFAS-coated clothes that are thrown away will often end up either incinerated or in landfill. Unless incinerated at very high temperatures (>1000oC), fluorinated polymers could release more harmful PFAS during burning. PFAS of environmental concern have also been found in landfill leachate. Non-polymer PFAS are used in the production of fluorinated polymers. The manufacture of stain-resistant finishes generally releases these PFASs into the environment, both by air and water emissions. They are very hard to remove during water treatment. Workers in textiles factories are some of the population most exposed to these potentially harmful chemicals. Small quantities of PFAS will be removed during wash and wear of products containing PFAS. This includes fluorinated polymers used on stain-resistant coatings, and non-polymers that remain on clothes after production (Lassen et al. 2015).Most UK waste still ends up in landfill, and this includes PFAS-containing products. Studies have shown that the liquid coming from landfills (known as leachate) often contain non-polymer PFAS chemicals. In the USA the total quantities were estimated at 563-638 kg in 2013. To properly break down PFAS chemicals high temperature (1000oC or more) incineration is recommended. Incineration of municipal waste does not necessarily reach these temperatures (min temp. required is 850oC), and the incomplete breakdown could release non-polymer PFAS.Wash and wear of clothing that contains PFAS-based stain-resistant or water repellent finishes release PFAS to the environment. Coatings are thought to lose effectiveness after 20-30 washes. This can include non-polymer PFAS, remnant from production or as a break-down product of side-chain polymers (Lassen et al. 2015). The manufacture of stain-resistant finishes releases PFAS into the environment, both by air and water emissions. PFAS are very hard to remove during water treatment. Industrial emissions are estimated to be the biggest source of these chemicals to the environment.

Forever Chemicals in the Food Aisle

In December 2018, Fidra were delighted to report that most major UK retailers had recognised the harmful environmental impacts of PFAS and stopped using them in stain-resistance treatments for school uniforms 1[1]

So, is that the end of PFAS on our supermarket shelves? Sadly, no, these policies ended on the clothing aisle.

Whilst our clothing might be free of PFAS, Fidra’s latest report, released today, shows that our food is still packaged in these harmful chemicals. The full report is available for download here: ‘Forever Chemicals in the Food Aisle’.


PFAS in UK food packaging

Per- or poly-fluorinated alkyl substances (PFAS) are a group of over 4,700 industrial chemicals widely used in everything from carpets to cosmetics and cookware. Our latest report shows that even our lunch is being packaged in PFAS.

We found PFAS in packaging samples collected from 8 out of 9 major UK supermarkets, and 100% of the takeaways we tested.

We found PFAS in cookie bags, bakery bags and microwave popcorn. We also found it in takeaway bags from leading UK coffee shops, pizza boxes and moulded fibre clamshells. So, every time you grab a bag of cookies or get fresh bread from the bakery section, you’re increasing your exposure to these chemicals.

The concentrations we found were high. In July this year, Denmark plan to introduce a ban on the use of PFAS in materials that come in contact with food. Samples from our study showed concentrations more than 300 times the new acceptable limit that Denmark have agreed on.

The problem with PFAS

PFAS are often referred to as the ‘forever chemicals’ because they take so long to breakdown in the environment. Some PFAS take over a thousand years to degrade. Whilst we know very little about the vast majority of this group of chemicals, the ones that have been well studied are now restricted because they were found to be toxic, persistent and bioaccumulative. Research has shown links between PFAS exposure and health concerns such as cancer, immune system problems, fertility issues and obesity. In the wild, there is evidence that PFAS can affect neurological processes in polar bears and cause harm to bottlenose dolphins and sea otters 2  With 99% of the US population found to have PFAS in their bloodstream, and growing evidence that numbers are similar all over the world, Fidra believe this is an issue we can no longer ignore.

PFAS are lost into the environment at almost every stage of the packaging’s life cycle, during manufacture, use, and once it’s been disposed of. No matter whether the packaging is recycled, composted or thrown into landfill, these forever chemicals find their way into our wider environment. Long after the paper bag we bought our lunch in has been discarded, and long after the bag itself has disappeared, the PFAS is still out there.

Taking action

At Fidra, we’re asking UK supermarkets to remove PFAS from their food packaging, cutting out these harmful environmental pollutants at source. We’re communicating directly with retail representatives, showing them the evidence and helping them find a pragmatic way forward.

But we need your help! To make this a priority, we need to show supermarkets that the public, their customers, you, care. We’ve launched an online petition, so please sign it, share it and together we can make this important change for our environment.