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.

PFAS in food packaging: why it matters and how you can help.

PFAS are everywhere. They are in our carpets, in our cleaning products and even in our non-stick frying pans. But did you know they could also be cosying up to our takeaway pizzas and microwavable popcorn? Fidra are encouraging UK supermarkets to remove these harmful chemicals from food packaging and we need your help. We need to know where PFAS are used, which products, which shops and which takeaways, so we can tailor our asks for a better outcome. That’s why we’re asking you, at home, in your school or in your club, to get involved and help us #FindThePFAS.

The problem with PFAS

PFAS (Per- or Poly-Fluorinated Alkyl Substances) are harmful industrial chemicals that can leak into the environment at every stage of a product’s lifecycle, from manufacture through to disposal. And no matter whether your food packaging is recycled, composted or landfilled, if it contains PFAS, these chemicals will eventually find their way to our soils, seas or freshwater systems. In 2019, the UK Environment Agency stated that a particularly harmful form of PFAS, PFOS, was now present in ‘all fish sampled from fresh, estuarine and coastal waters’. With some PFAS taking over 1,000 years to degrade, and growing evidence of their toxicity to both people and wildlife, these ‘forever chemicals’ are no longer a problem we can ignore.

Food packaging and PFAS

PFAS are commonly used in paper and cardboard food packaging as a barrier to moisture and grease. For example, they provide an easy way to ensure absorbent materials, such as the paper bag wrapped around a greasy pastry, remain sturdy and intact whilst in contact with your food. But it’s not only greasy foods that are packaged in PFAS. Fidra’s own research found these chemicals in food packaging collected from 8 out of 9 major UK supermarkets, including bakery bags and other dry food containers, as well as in 100% of the takeaways we tested.

But, using forever chemcials is not the only way to avoid soggy food packaging. As of July 1st this year, Denmark have banned the addition of PFAS to paper and board packaging materials that are designed to come into contact with food, citing concerns over the associated public health risk. The ban focuses only on intentionally added PFAS, as existing widespread pollution now makes low-levels, or ‘background levels’, of PFAS contamination unavoidable. Whilst Denmark now restricts PFAS in food contact materials to 10 µg dm-2 dw, Fidra’s recent study found levels more than 300 times that in UK food packaging!

If such levels of PFAS aren’t deemed safe for the people and wildlife of Denmark, why would they be safe in the UK?

Help us find PFAS

As the world continues to move from plastic packaging to ‘greener’ or eco-branded alternatives, such as cardboard or compostables, PFAS use in packaging is set to increase dramatically. To avoid simply swapping one pollutant to another, Fidra are working to remove PFAS from UK paper and cardboard food packaging. We’ve been engaging directly with food retailers, and with over 10,000 signatures on our petition calling for supermarkets to remove PFAS from their packaging, the opportunity for change has never been greater.

In order to keep moving forward, we now need more information. We need to know what products and what retailers are using these forever chemicals. This is where you come in. Fidra are now inviting everyone to get involved and help us ‘find the PFAS’. Our simple, at-home test allows you to check for the likely presence of PFAS in food packaging.  All you need is a pencil, some olive oil and any paper or cardboard food packaging collected from your home or saved from your weekend takeaway. We even have a handy video to walk you through it, step by step.  Once you’re done, you can simply submit your results online.

So what are you waiting for?! Grab a pencil, some packaging and help us #FindThePFAS! Your findings will help us to make more targeted asks of industry and policymakers, better inform future research and ensure that PFAS pollution remains in the spotlight.