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.

Major takeaway chains still serving food packed in PFAS

Despite increasing pressure from consumers, health experts and environmental NGO’s, a recent report by Mind the Store and Toxic-Free Future has found major US fast-food chains are still serving some of the countries favourite takeaway foods packed in PFAS.

The study looked at 38 items collected from McDonalds, Burger King, Wendy’s, Sweetgreen, Cava and Freshii, from multiple stores across three different US states. And we’re not off the hook here in the UK either. Their results found packaging from some of our own favourite’s, such as Burger King’s Whopper and McDonald’s Big Mac, containing PFAS.

In line with Fidra’s previous report, ‘Forever Chemicals in the Food Aisle’, this study highlighted both paper bags, such as those used for cookies, fries and chicken nuggets, and moulded fibre containers marketed as compostable, as key items likely to have PFAS added.

A fixable problem

Not all food is packed in PFAS. While at least one item was found from each fast-food chain tested, the chains were also using some packaging for fried foods that came out as PFAS-free. Paperboard cartons or clamshells for fries and chicken nuggets came back with PFAS levels below the screening value, and Sweetgreen recently announced they are phasing out PFAS from their bowls, replacing them with PFAS-free versions by the end of 2020. In fact, 67% of the packaging tested from burger chains was PFAS-free. So what about the other 23%?

Over a million Big Mac boxes are used and thrown away every day. While the burger is bought, eaten and forgotten, and the packaging slowly degraded, the PFAS it contains can remain in our environment for 1000’s of years. With PFAS linked to increased risk for certain cancers, immune system suppression and fertility issue, and causing widespread harm to our wildlife populations, Safer Chemicals and their Mind the Store campaign are asking everyone to take action. Their new campaign ‘We’re not lovin’ it’, is asking people worldwide to write to McDonalds, the world’s top fast food chain, asking them to go PFAS-free.

Lots more information can be found on the Safer Chemicals, Healthy Families website, including more on what they tested, what they’re doing now and how you can get involved.

And don’t forget to follow @FidraTweets to keep up to date on what we’re doing to prevent PFAS pollution here in the UK.


Dr Kerry Dinsmore (