Food availability is one of the many luxuries we enjoy in our modern world. From takeout to groceries to ready-made meal kits, our next meal is never far and is always neatly packaged and ready for us to consume. However, the packaging that keeps our food fresh and ready poses a hidden risk.
Food packaging, including plastics, wax-covered paper, and Styrofoam, are typically made out of chemicals known as PFAS (per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances). These chemicals, also known as “forever chemicals”, are commonly used to make materials water-, stain-, and grease- resistant. PFAs were previously thought to be sturdy, safe materials that are not easily broken down; however, recent studies have shown that this is not always the case. PFAS are quickly being recognized as a potential risk to both human health and the environment, and one of the biggest sources of these chemicals is in our food packaging.
What we put our food in is equally important as what we put in our food. When hot, salty, or acidic food is placed in containers made from PFAS or BPA chemicals, the chemical integrity of the container can disrupt and leak chemicals into our meals. A recent investigation tested the food packaging of over 100 products for organic fluorine, a reliable indicator for PFAS. Many of the products, even the paper wrappings, indicated a presence of PFAS over 500ppm. In comparison, California is working on setting a maximum limit of 100ppm in packaging products by 2023. And, on the other side of the planet, the EU is working to ban PFAS entirely.
When ingested in small amounts, BPA and PFAS pose little risk. However, large amounts can be extremely harmful, with effects seen in people who regularly eat takeout and packaged food. Health risks of these chemicals include:
- Lower birth weight in infants
- Weakened immune systems and lower effectiveness of vaccines
- Cancer risks
- Potential thyroid disruption and hormonal imbalances
These toxic chemicals enter our food through packaging and cause direct exposure through consumption in our foods. While consuming PFAS does cause health problems, it’s unlikely that many of us actually consume high enough concentrations to truly impact our health. However, research on this is ongoing.
Even for those who don’t often eat packaged food, these toxins can still pose a threat. PFAS enter the environment through packaging disposal and degradation, exposing us to indirect sources of toxicity.
While it may not seem like our takeout containers and grocery packaging is a significant source of environmental pollution, Americans generate an average of 258 million tons of municipal solid waste every year, about half of which is from food packaging. This number is increased tremendously when you take into account packaging waste produced worldwide. Our packaging products, most of which is nonrecyclable, fill up landfills and contribute to major sources of yearly carbon dioxide emissions.
The growing amount of plastic pollution from food packaging is a significant contributor to the global plastic crisis, leading to hundreds of millions of tons of non-biodegradable waste in our oceans and waterways. Not only does this lead to exorbitant amounts of solid waste, but chemical waste as well.
Just as PFAS can leach into our foods, they can also break down into our water. Studies have found PFAS and BPA in our wildlife, particularly in fish. However, reports indicate that these chemicals can bioaccumulate and move upwards through the food chain, resulting in high contamination in mammals, especially predators. The toxic effects on wildlife are similar to those in humans, including weakened immuno-responses and damage to livers, kidneys, and thyroids.
To limit our direct exposure to chemicals in food packaging, we can minimize our takeout meals and opt for home-cooked and dine-in meals instead. However, with the growing threat of food deserts across the country, many people lack the luxury of avoiding ready-made meals and takeout, making these toxins unavoidable for millions of people.
Even when we take steps to avoid our personal exposure, PFAS and other toxic chemicals may still enter our bodies through environmental contamination. While governments around the world work to limit these chemicals in our packaging, consumers can pressure companies to use responsible products. Restaurants and food services can take advantage of food packaging and container testing that ensures safe and environmentally friendly products that avoid the use of toxic chemicals.
As individuals, we can also pressure our local governments to act on setting limits on PFAS in food packaging. By doing so, we can mitigate the largest source of PFAS and BPA exposure to ourselves and our environment.
Lena Milton is a freelance writer covering sustainability, health and environmental science. She writes to help consumers understand the environmental and ethical challenges in everyday life so we can find viable solutions for both.