January 23, 2023

The Problem with PFAS

Per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, also known as PFAS, are made from chain-linked carbon and fluorine atoms which due to their bonding strength break down very slowly over time. PFAS were first developed in 1938 and are currently used in aerospace, automotive, construction, electronic, textile, and packaging materials. Due to their longevity, many public health concerns have risen about the widespread occurrence, persistence, and bioaccumulation of PFAS. Man-made PFAS chemicals have leached into our air, soil, and water where we are most commonly exposed to them. As exposure occurs so due a variety of health concerns. While research is still being done on the impacts of PFAS, they have been proven to be linked to cancer, liver damage, decreased fertility, asthma, and thyroid disease.  The presence of PFAS in grease resistant packaging materials often used in the restaurant industry is a main contributor to human exposure. This specific source of PFAS has a greater impact on communities that rely on fast food products due to their convenience and price. Many restaurants such as Burger King, CAVA, Chick-fil-a, Popeyes, and Chipotle have pledged to phase out PFAS in their packaging. However, without accountability and incentives, the removal of PFAS has not seemed to be a top priority.

The visual included below depicts some of the ways PFAS exposure occurs from food packaging.

The first and most simple way to avoid PFAS, is to avoid using materials that contain PFAS. By bringing reusable to-go containers, waste containing PFAS and exposure to PFAS is reduced. Disposing of PFAS containers can cause cross contamination with recyclable materials as well as leaching of chemicals into the landfill and the environment. If bringing reusable containers isn’t an option, some other alternatives include transferring takeout food out of its packaging as quickly as possible. Leaving food in the container increases the likelihood that PFAS will cause contamination. Some alternative packaging options would be foil, glass, or silicone containers that don’t contain PFAS.  Another impactful option is to avoid heating food in containers that contain PFAS. Placing warm food or warming up food in a PFAS container increases the risk of PFAS transferring to food.

A slightly more extreme option than bringing your own takeout containers is to avoid eating at restaurants containing PFAS packaging. A number of restaurants pledged to phase out PFAS entirely from their packaging by the end of 2021… which then became the end of 2023… and now the end of 2025. Cava is a prime example of this. In August 2020, Cava committed to eliminating PFAS from its food packaging by mid-2021. The company then released a statement that due to pandemic related factors, the elimination of PFAS would be postponed until late 2022. The best consumer solution to mitigate PFAS is to avoid restaurants that serve packaging with the chemicals in it. Additionally, it is important to be an educated consumer and follow up restaurant statements with research about the status of their to-go containers. As materials, economies, and supply chains change so do the restaurant’s goals towards eliminating PFAS. Once consumers stop investing in the product, maybe restaurants will put more emphasis on fulfilling their commitments.

The last and most impactful way to mitigate the use of PFAS is through legislation changes. Currently, California has banned the intentional use of PFAS starting January 2023. Additionally, they have set metrics for allowable levels of PFAS which must be less than 100 ppm organic fluoride. Some legislators such as those in Denmark have set stricter restraints on the levels of PFAS and only allow 20 ppm of intentional chemicals. Intentional PFAS are ones that are deliberately added to a virgin product for quality purposes rather than levels that come from recyclable material or trace contaminants. These unintentional sources can also be found in packaging but are not accounted for in legislation. Creating statewide legislation is important because it will require restaurants in those states to act and be accountable for what containers they are using. Additionally, the legislation needs to target packaging companies. By treating the problem at the source, legislators could prevent the creation of PFAS which would help keep it out of the environment through waste generation. Requiring changes from packing companies will also provide more packaging options for restaurants whereas the current market might have limited options that meet the PFAS restrictions.

Part of why CIRT was founded is to educate consumers and businesses on materials and circularity. CIRT recognizes the importance of human health and environmental health and wants to make a difference in educating consumers on “forever chemicals'' such as PFAS. CIRT is excited to offer consumer insight to materials and products that are PFAS free. We look forward to tracking PFAS free plastics in the database and doing our part in preserving the  environment of harmful chemicals.