PFAS in Packaging: Mess Free, But Not So Healthy

Kira

Article Author: Kira Levenson, Biochemistry Major, Class of 2022, POB Science Translator

Water- and grease-resistant food packaging is an everyday staple in our lives, keeping tasty meals mess-free. However, this packaging is often loaded with chemicals to give them these specialized qualities. In particular, many endocrine-disrupting chemicals (EDCs) are included in such packaging, even though EDCs are often hazardous to human health. 

EDCs interfere with the endocrine system, a crucial and complex regulatory system of signals and responses related to human growth, development, metabolism, and more. Like a well-synchronized orchestra, this system must work in harmony to correctly send and receive the millions of signals needed for proper human function and health. 

The signals which regulate the endocrine system are commonly known as hormones, small molecules which travel throughout the body to wherever they’re needed. Exposure to endocrine disruptors, which mimic natural hormones, is especially harmful during developmental periods up through a woman’s first full-term pregnancy. 

One category of concerning EDCs is PFAS, short for per- or polyfluoroalkyl substances. This group encompasses a wide variety of chemicals, including the well-known harmful perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) and perfluorooctanesulfonic acid (PFOS), which have been banned and removed from production. However, many new and uncharacterized PFAS are currently being used in products with little to no information about their effects (commonly known as regrettable substitutions). They’re ingrained in our daily lives, coating everything from grease-proof popcorn bags to non-stick pans.

Studies have shown the impacts PFAS may have on health. In a 2018 review paper, Sunderland et al. examined numerous PFAS studies and synthesized their results. A wide variety of health effects were observed ranging from immune system suppression to gestational diabetes (diabetes developed during pregnancy). They also found results across a number of studies suggesting a link between PFAS exposures and abnormal cholesterol levels, immune system responses, and the age of first menstruation (Sunderland et al.). Early menstruation in particular has been linked to breast cancer development (Mishra et al. 2012). The researchers suggest that their observations may be due to EDC exposures affecting many key developmental stages in children. Additionally, they speculate about children having relatively higher amounts of PFAS in their bodies when compared to adult bodies, due to their smaller body mass.

Additionally, in a 2020 article, Nate Seltenrich analyzed the impacts of a 2017 study by the Massachusetts-based Silent Spring Institute, which “estimated associations between blood serum levels of five common PFAS and consumption of fast food, pizza, and microwave popcorn.” As expected, based on previous studies and knowledge of PFAS, higher concentrations of PFAS were observed for participants with greater consumption of fast food and microwave popcorn. 

Though both articles acknowledge more research is needed to understand the impacts of newer PFAS on human health, precautions need to be taken to reduce human exposures as much as possible. Previous PFAS, such as PFOA and PFOS, have been known to negatively affect human health and development, so new compounds should similarly be treated with caution. PFOS in particular can remain in the body for over five years, making it clear that PFAS continue to affect the body long after the initial exposure with many yet-to-be-determined health impacts.

In the end, Sunderland et al. put it best: “Lessons learned from legacy PFASs indicate that limited data should not be used as a justification to delay risk mitigation actions for replacement PFASs.” Although we don’t have all of the answers about new PFAS, we have enough evidence about their risks to take action now: for healthier, safer lives.

Wherever you can, try to reduce your use of products containing new or replacement PFAS chemicals or other EDCs. Swap out your microwave popcorn for a pre-popped alternative, or pop it yourself. Instead of reaching for fast food, get creative in the kitchen and prep your own meals to decrease your exposure to excessive food packaging. Most importantly, keep yourself informed in a way that works best for you! Staying informed and aware will help you make healthier choices to protect not only your own health, but also the health of those around you.

Sources:

Sunderland EM, Hu XC, Dassuncao C, Tokranov AK, Wagner CC, Allen JG. A review of the pathways of human exposure to poly- and perfluoroalkyl substances (PFASs) and present understanding of health effects. J Expo Sci Environ Epidemiol. 2019 Mar;29(2):131-147. doi: 10.1038/s41370-018-0094-1. Epub 2018 Nov 23. PMID: 30470793; PMCID: PMC6380916.

Seltenrich N. PFAS in Food Packaging: A Hot, Greasy Exposure. Environ Health Perspect. 2020;128(5):54002. doi:10.1289/EHP6335

Disclaimer: The information provided herein is the author’s opinion. Our authors are not scientists. We are not providing medical advice, but simply sharing publicly available information. When we reference data and databases, we do so with the caveat that most are only as good as the data they are based on. While POB strives to make the information as timely and accurate as possible, we make no claims, promises, or guarantees about the completeness, or adequacy of the contents of any site that is shared, and expressly disclaims liability for errors and omissions in the contents of these sites.  POB goes to great lengths to avoid declaring shared products as “safe” as there is no legal definition of the word “safe” at this time.

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