Research Report

The Health and Environmental Risks of PFAS: A Focus on Food Contact Packaging

May 24th, 2022


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PFAS chemicals - everywhere and in everyone

What are PFAS and why are they hazardous?

Per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, (PFAS), are a group of manufactured chemicals typically applied as a coating or treatment to products as they are resistant to water, oil and heat. They are used in products including non-stick cookware, water resistant clothing and footwear, cosmetics and food packaging.

A growing body of research is exposing PFAS as chemicals that should be avoided due to their persistence and mobility in the environment. PFAS are not broken down by factors such as sunlight, water, exposure to air or temperature variability meaning the vast majority of all PFAS ever produced are still circulating today. They have also been found in over 99% of people tested.

Human health concerns about exposure to PFAS

Studies on human health demonstrate correlation between high PFAS exposure and a range of health impacts, including breast, testicular and kidney cancers, elevated cholesterol, and a range of developmental issues in foetuses. Studies have also highlighted the potential for PFAS to impair the function of the immune system, reducing the ability to fight disease and the response to vaccines.

Exposure can occur via ingestion of contaminated food and drinking water, use of consumer products containing PFAS, transfer from mother to child during pregnancy and breastfeeding and through occupational exposure.

Environmental concerns about PFAS

Due to the ability of PFAS to travel in water and in the air as dust and aerosols, they have spread all over the planet, even to remote polar regions. PFAS can enter and contaminate aquatic and terrestrial environment from manufacturing processes or through supply chains and disposal, where they enter the food chain and have a range of impacts on ecosystems.

PFAS in fibre-based food packaging

This report highlights the use of PFAS in fibre-based food packaging products and the potential associated issues. Studies on microwave popcorn have highlighted the ability of PFAS to be transferred from packaging to the food inside at high temperature and subsequently ingested, exposing consumers to PFAS, albeit at low levels.

A recent Planet Ark and Australian Packaging Covenant Organisation (APCO) study confirmed the presence of PFAS significantly above background levels in almost a third of packaging samples tested, with concentrations consistent with those found in comparable studies of food fibre packaging in the US, UK, and the EU. Alternative treatments for food packaging are available, with a second study showing grease proof paper can be manufactured essentially PFAS-free.

A case for regulating PFAS in Australia

Research into the health and environmental impacts of PFAS is ongoing, but evidence supports the case for transitioning away from these chemicals. Though a causal relationship with several health endpoints has not been fully established, there is correlation between high PFAS exposure and detrimental health impacts. Evidence of the widespread dispersal and persistence of these chemicals in the environment has been demonstrated and is cause for concern.

In Europe and some US states, regulations have been put in place to ban the use of PFAS in a range of products. The issue is that in many cases PFAS are replaced with ‘regrettable substitutes’ that also pose risks to human and environmental health.

Guided by the precautionary principle, Planet Ark recommends avoiding PFAS where possible and transitioning to safer alternatives. The precautionary principle outlines that “when an activity raises threats of harm to human health or the environment, precautionary measures should be taken even if some cause-and-effect relationships are not fully established scientifically.”

The aim of this report is to promote awareness of the health and environmental risks of PFAS and support a transition to the use of lower-risk chemicals. Where alternative food packaging products are available, such as PFAS-free grease proof paper, these should be supported.

Sean O'Malley

Planet Ark - Sustainability and Science Consultant

Roy Tasker

Chief Scientific Advisor

Sarah Chaplin

Assistant Manager National Tree Day

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