Today’s report released by Scottish NGO Fidra shows that controversial PFAS chemicals, also known as forever chemicals, are present in UK food packaging.
Fidra analysed 20 food packaging samples bought in the UK to test for the presence of PFAS (per- and polyfluorinated alkyl substances). PFAS were present in 95% of the samples tested as reported in their new report: “Forever chemicals in the food aisle: PFAS content of UK supermarket and takeaway food packaging”.
Forever chemicals, PFAS, are of great concern for CHEM Trust due to their widespread presence in the environment and links to impacts on human health as exposed in our recent briefing. In October 2019, we wrote to the UK Food Standard Agency to ring the alarm.
PFAS are a group of over 4,500 industrial chemicals extensively used in consumer products. PFAS coatings are applied to paper and cardboard food packaging and containers to prevent them from getting soggy.
Previous studies have revealed their widespread presence in food packaging all around the world, but it is the first time that PFAS have been shown to be in food packaging used in the UK.
Fidra’s key findings
Fidra selected 20 samples of food packaging and containers highly suspected to contain PFAS, including bakery bags, greaseproof paper, pizza boxes, microwave popcorn bags and compostable takeaway boxes. The samples were bought in major UK supermarkets, popular takeaway chains and independent takeaway restaurants in November 2019. They sent the samples to a laboratory in Denmark for Total Organic Fluorine analysis, a widely accepted proxy for total PFAS content. PFAS were identified in all samples, except in greaseproof paper samples, at levels above expected background contamination.
Fidra’s study demonstrates that hazardous PFAS chemicals are present in a wide range of food packaging that people are buying everyday in the UK.
Why is PFAS in food packaging bad news?
PFAS chemicals have been linked to various adverse health effects, including thyroid disease, liver damage, reduced response to vaccines in children, and increased risk of certain cancers. PFAS in packaging can contaminate food, a process which has been recognized as one route of PFAS exposure, making this a public health issue.
PFAS in food packaging is also an environmental issue, as the PFAS can leach from food packaging after disposal, contaminating the environment. PFAS are known as forever chemicals because they don’t easily degrade once released in the environment. They are also very mobile, contaminating water bodies all around the world, including drinking water.
Forever Chemicals in your compost
The highest level of PFAS in Fidra’s study was reported for compostable takeaway containers made of moulded fibre, and this is particularly worrying. Chemicals which are persistent in the environment have no place in products sold as compostable. The moulded fibre container might physically degrade in a composting facility, but the invisible, very stable PFAS won’t. These chemicals will go on contaminating the compost for years on.
Moreover, studies have demonstrated that fruit and vegetables grown on PFAS-contaminated compost tend to take in PFAS, meaning that we end up being exposed to these harmful chemicals again and again.
What is the UK Government doing about it?
In October last year CHEM Trust wrote to the UK Food Standards Agency to ask them what action they are taking “to explore reduction measures for a better protection, including a ban on PFAS in paper and card food contact materials in the UK”. In their response from November 2019 they said that “A blanket ban risks being counter-productive as these substances provide essential functions”.
They also said that “industry in the UK has moved away from their use in favour of alternatives”, suggesting that PFAS uses in food packaging in the UK might be limited to “a minority of speciality application”. The results from Fidra’s study clearly demonstrate that this is not the case.
CHEM Trust’s view on PFAS
CHEM Trust urges the UK Government to follow the steps of Denmark in banning all PFAS in paper and cardboard food packaging, knowing that safer alternatives are available.
CHEM Trust’s position is that all PFAS should be restricted at once under the European chemical regulation REACH. Several European member states have now announced their support for a ban on all PFAS in non-essential uses.
The UK Government must commit to joining this phase-out of PFAS; Brexit should not be an excuse to delay strong action on these polluting forever chemicals.
What can you do about it?
Since there is currently no information available on PFAS on labels of food packaging and containers, Fidra recommends to “avoid the unnecessary use of disposable food packaging, favouring reusable containers wherever appropriate” in order to limit your exposure and the environmental impact of PFAS-bearing food packaging.
Actor Mark Ruffalo and lawyer Rob Bilott, have expressed their support to Fidra’s petition during their promotion tour of the new Hollywood film Dark Waters, which depicts the scandal of PFAS contamination in the US.
Julie Schneider, CHEM Trust campaigner said:
“Forever chemicals in paper and cardboard food packaging in the UK is bad news for UK citizen’s health and bad news for the UK environment. Harmful chemicals shouldn’t be present in food packaging, and the UK should follow the steps of Denmark in banning all PFAS in food packaging.
But it shouldn’t stop there, forever chemicals are already polluting the future, all PFAS should be banned in all non-essential uses in order to prevent further contamination and protect people and wildlife’s health.”
A follow up study by CHEM Trust and partners in 2021 has found that PFAS chemicals are still being used in food packaging from UK high street retailers. This study was part of a wider investigation at European level regarding the presence of PFAS in disposable food packaging and tableware on the European market. Read more about the study in our PFAS and food packaging FAQ page.
CHEM Trust is calling on the UK government to ban PFAS in all non-essential uses including food packaging. You can take action here.
- CHEM Trust is also calling for new EU laws on the chemicals used in all food contact materials. Find out more on our Food Contact Material web page.
- To learn more about PFAS, see our recent briefing: “PFAS – the ‘forever chemicals’, Invisible threats from persistent chemicals.”‘; the latest news & information about PFAS is on our PFAS web page.
- This issue has been covered by ENDS Report.