Potentially hazardous chemicals may be in food packaging

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Food packaging and utensils can contain up to 68 “forever chemicals” that carry possible health risks, with regulators potentially being unaware of the presence of many of them.

So-called perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) are a class of synthetic chemicals that are used to produce goods such as non-stick cookware and waterproof clothing. The bonds between the carbon and fluorine atoms in PFAS are so strong that it can take hundreds to thousands of years for them to break down.

Many of these chemicals have been linked to harmful health outcomes, including cancer and reproductive and immune problems.

“There are thousands of these chemicals,” says Birgit Geueke at the Food Packaging Forum organisation in Switzerland. “We wanted to get a picture of what is known about the presence of PFAS in food packaging.”

Geueke and her colleagues analysed 1312 studies carried out around the world that detailed the chemicals that come into contact with food, which could occur during manufacturing, packaging or cooking. They then cross-referenced these chemicals to a list of known PFAS.

The team discovered that 68 PFAS are commonly found across materials that come into contact with food, such as packaging and cookware. Of these, 61 weren’t previously known to be present in such materials and therefore haven’t been included on regulatory lists that dictate the use of PFAS.

Just 39 of the 68 PFAS have been examined for toxicity. One of the substances that has been examined is perfluorooctanoic acid, which is classified as possibly cancer-causing to people, based on limited evidence that it can cause testicular and kidney cancer, says Geueke.

“I think it should be the responsibility of the manufacturers to make sure that PFAS are used as little as possible,” she says. Regulators around the world are working in the right direction, she says. For example, there was a recent proposal in the European Union to ban most PFAS.


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