Recent Consumer Reports tests of more than 100 food packaging products from U.S. restaurants and supermarkets found dangerous PFAS (per-and polyfluoroalkyl substances) chemicals in many of the products, including paper bags for French fries, wrappers for hamburgers, molded fiber salad bowls, and single-use paper plates…
That’s concerning, as growing research documents that PFAS, which are added to many materials to make them resistant to grease, water, and stains, have led to environmental contamination around the globe and raised questions about their health risks when they accumulate in our bodies.
One of the main concerns about PFAS is how long they last. In fact, they are often called “forever chemicals” because they break down extremely. slowly, if ever. That persistence, combined with the many products that now contain PFAS, means that there are many ways the chemicals can enter the environment and eventually reach humans, too…
In Maine, wastewater sludge from mills where such products are produced has reportedly been used to fertilize fields where cattle graze. In 2020, the Maine Department of Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry tested milk from dairy farms and found levels of one particular PFAS in a sample from a farm that were more than 150 times higher than state regulations permit.
When food packaging contains PFAS, some of those chemicals can migrate into food. Other products, like stain- resistant carpets, can leave PFAS in household dust and air.
…Once food packaging or other products containing PFAS are thrown away, PFAS can leach out from landfills or spread from incinerators into the environment, where they can contaminate soil, food, water, and air—just like they can when they are first produced. People may then eat food containing the chemicals, drink water that contains them, or even breathe the chemicals in. And a growing number of the chemicals have been linked to a variety of health problems.
For decades, PFAS manufacturers have had information indicating that the chemicals may harm human health, but for the first 60 or so years that PFAS were in production, many people thought that potential harms were specific to workers exposed to the chemicals on an industrial scale, not the general public.
…In 1998, a West Virginia farmer named Wilbur Tennant started raising concerns about the effects that pollution from a nearby DuPont factory had on his cattle. This helped lead to a class-action lawsuit… The resulting settlement led to the creation of the C8 science panel, which… assessed links between exposure to PFOA and a number of diseases, and found probable links between exposure and thyroid disease, higher cholesterol levels, kidney and testicular cancer, ulcerative colitis, and pregnancy-induced hypertension. Other research on various PFAS has found links to liver damage and kidney disease. Growing research has also shown that health risks can occur even at very low levels.
In 2010 and 2011, Philippe Grandjean, PhD, a professor of environmental medicine at the University of Southern Denmark, had been studying children in the Faroes to see whether certain chemicals in the environment could dampen the immune system’s response to childhood vaccines. When he saw a study showing that PFAS could affect animal immune systems, he and colleagues decided to see whether PFAS also affected how children responded to the vaccines. The results were dramatic… “It was very clear these compounds were inhibiting the immune system.”
… Higher levels of PFAS in blood samples taken from the children were associated with less effective protection after being vaccinated… Follow-up research in other countries has confirmed this effect and has also shown that children with higher blood levels of PFAS have more infections…
Still, calculating the exact level of PFAS exposure that causes harm isn’t straightforward, especially since there are thousands of different PFAS, some more toxic than others. Manufacturers have stopped producing a couple of these chemicals in the U.S…, however, they’ve been replaced by newer chemicals that have not been as thoroughly studied by independent researchers.
Both the Food and Drug Administration and the American Chemistry Council, which represents PFAS manufacturers, argue that we don’t know for sure that newer PFAS are as unsafe as the ones they are replacing. But a growing body of research suggests that many do pose risks… There are consistent patterns across these chemicals… and the most
consistent pattern is that they’re toxic.