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. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/17554424 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 PFASs 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.

Fidra joins leading NGOs in asking the UK Government to take action on PFAS, the forever chemicals

PFAS pollution is the persistent problem we cannot afford to ignore. That’s why a diverse range of leading NGO’s, from Breast Cancer UK to Marine Conservation Society, have joined with actor and activist, Mark Ruffalo, and lawyer Robert Bilott, to urge the UK government to take action and remove these forever chemicals from our food packaging.

Forever Chemicals in Food Packaging

Fidra’s work on PFAS started with a focus on the stain resistant treatments widely used on children’s school uniforms, something we’re pleased to report has now been phased out by many UK supermarkets and high street retailers. But our celebrations were short-lived. Despite the health and environmental concerns surrounding PFAS, and the growing availability of alternatives, PFAS-use in packaging continues to be widespread. Our recent report, ‘Forever chemicals in the food aisle’, found PFAS in food packaging from 8 out of 9 major UK supermarkets, and 100% of takeaways tested. Highest concentrations were more than 300 times the acceptable limit to be enforced in Denmark from July this year.

The PFAS used in food packaging can directly contaminate our food1, and PFAS is lost to the environment at almost every stage of the product’s lifecycle2. Chemical and manufacturing industries are major sources of PFAS to the environment, and whether we recycle, compost of landfill our lunch wrapper, these highly mobile chemicals easily escape.

The pastry you buy with your morning coffee might take minutes to consume, the bag it comes in, maybe months to degrade, but PFAS, left behind once everything visible has long since disappeared, can stay in our environment, polluting our wildlife and food chains, for thousands of years.

Going PFAS free

Denmark’s leading supermarket, Coop, successfully phased out PFAS from food packaging as far back as 2015, and restaurant chain Taco Bell have committed to phase them out of consumer-facing packaging by 2025. With the Danish government due to ban the addition of PFAS to food packaging from July this year3, and the Netherlands leading an EU-wide proposal to ban all non-essential uses of PFAS2, the UK needs to take immediate action to ensure UK consumers and our environment are equally protected.

Following the publication of our recent report into PFAS in UK food packaging4, Fidra have been engaging directly with supermarkets, asking them to commit to removing PFAS from their own supply chains. But to support this movement, and to ensure action is consistent across the UK food sector, we need comprehensive legislation restricting the use of all PFAS used in paper and board food packaging.

Today, health and environmental charities, filmmakers, scientists, experts and concerned citizens have joined together as signatories on a letter to UK ministers urging them to take action.

With new Hollywood film DARK WATERS due for release in UK cinemas this week, telling the shocking true story of Rob Bilott’s twenty-year battle against chemical giant DuPont, we have a unique opportunity to raise awareness of this important issue and achieve real and lasting change.

What can you do?

At Fidra, we’ve had previous success working closely with the industries we are trying to influence, focusing on evidence and solutions to bring about positive change. We’re already engaging with UK supermarkets directly, but we need your help in showing them that removing PFAS from packaging is a move their customers support.

Lend us your voice, and tell your supermarket you want PFAS out of your food packaging by signing and sharing our petition, and together we can make a genuine change today that will leave a lasting legacy for tomorrow.

References

  1. Trier X, Taxvig C, Rosenmai AK, Pedersen GA. PFAS in paper and board for food contact – options for risk management of poly- and perfluorinated substances. Copenhagen K, Denmark: Nordic Council of Ministers; 2017. Report nr 978-92-893-5328-1.
  2. European Environment Agency. Emerging chemical risks in Europe — ‘PFAS’. 2020.
  3. Ministry of the Environment and Food Denmark. The Minister of Food is ready to ban fluorine.  2019.
  4. Dinsmore KJ. Forever chemicals in the food aisle: PFAS content of UK supermarket and takeaway food packaging. Fidra; 2020.