We’re at a pivotal moment for engagement with climate change, plastic pollution and the biodiversity crisis. However, chemical pollution often remains overlooked because of its scientific complexity and economic significance. The ongoing toxification of our natural environment continues unabated, with chemical use set to double over the next 12 years. However, one group of forever chemicals, PFAS, are too persistent to ignore.
The PFAS problem
PFAS, per- and poly-fluorinated alkyl substances, are referred to as ‘forever chemicals’ because they can take 1000s of years to degrade in the environment. PFAS are highly mobile and widely acknowledged as persistent, bioaccumulative and toxic. They have been recorded in water, air and soils around the world and in the blood serum of 99% of people tested. Concentrations high enough to cause neurological problems have been found in Greenlandic polar bears, and in the UK, they’ve been detected in seabirds, otters and porpoises. This group of over 4700 industrial chemicals are used in many consumer products, from clothing to cookware and cosmetics, and Fidra’s report ‘Forever chemicals in the food aisle’, shows they are also widely used in UK food packaging.
Packed in PFAS
We found PFAS in samples from 8 out of 9 major UK supermarkets and 100% of takeaways tested. We found them in cookie bags, bakery bags and microwave popcorn. We also found them in takeaway bags from UK coffee shops, pizza boxes and the moulded fibre clamshells often used for burgers and chips. Responding to concerns for public health, Denmark have committed to restricting the use of PFAS in food packaging from July 2020. We found concentrations in takeaway boxes more than 300 times the new Danish limit.
PFAS can migrate from packaging into food and are lost to the environment during manufacture, use, and disposal. Whether the packaging is recycled, composted or thrown into landfill, these forever chemicals find their way into our environment.
At Fidra, we’re taking a two-pronged approach to this issue. We’re engaging with retailers directly and through their customers and investors, whilst simultaneously pursuing legislative change. We’re asking supermarkets to remove PFAS from their food packaging, helping them find solutions and alternatives, and highlighting public support through our petition. We’re also using our position as signatories to the UNPRI to gain support from investors in asking global companies to phase-out PFAS.
Working with the team behind the new film about PFAS pollution, DARK WATERS, we’ve written an open letter to UK ministers, asking the government to restrict the use of all PFAS in food packaging, and welcome the support of Wildlife and Countryside Link members.
What can you do to help?
You can help us spread the word. We'd welcome your support for our public awareness campaign - www.pfasfree.org.uk and we'd be happy to provide blogs and other content if helpful. We'd also welcome additional support in our engagement with ministers, parliamentarians and civil servants to show the broad backing behind our calls for action. If you have other ideas on how to galvanise this work further, please do get in touch directly on firstname.lastname@example.org.
Dr Kerry Dinsmore, Project Manager, Fidra
Follow @FidraTweets for updates about the campaign.
The opinions expressed in this blog are the author's and not necessarily those of the wider Link membership.
1. United Nations Environment Programme. Global Chemicals Outlook II From Legacies to Innovative Solutions: Implementing the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. 2019.
2. Calafat AM, Wong L-Y, Kuklenyik Z, Reidy JA, Needham LL. Polyfluoroalkyl Chemicals in the U.S. Population: Data from the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES) 2003–2004 and Comparisons with NHANES 1999–2000. Environmental Health Perspectives 2007;115(11):1596-1602.
3. Eggers Pedersen K, Basu N, Letcher R, Greaves AK, Sonne C, Dietz R, Styrishave B. Brain region-specific perfluoroalkylated sulfonate (PFSA) and carboxylic acid (PFCA) accumulation and neurochemical biomarker Responses in east Greenland polar Bears (Ursus maritimus). Environmental Research 2015;138:22-31.
4. Environment Agency. Perfluorooctane sulfonate (PFOS) and related substances: sources, pathways and environmental data. 2019.
5. Law RJ, Bersuder P, Mead LK, Jepson PD. PFOS and PFOA in the livers of harbour porpoises (Phocoena phocoena) stranded or bycaught around the UK. Marine Pollution Bulletin 2008;56(4):792-797.
6. Begley TH, Hsu W, Noonan G, Diachenko G. Migration of fluorochemical paper additives from food-contact paper into foods and food simulants. Food Addit Contam Part A Chem Anal Control Expo Risk Assess 2008;25(3):384-90.
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