What do burger wrappers, Teflon nonstick pans, and stain-resistant fabrics have in common? Many of these products contain a chemical part of a class of compounds known by the acronym PFAS (per- or poly-fluoroalkyl substances). The highly desirable properties of coatings made from these compounds are their ability to be impervious to water, grease, and oils (stains). As a result, PFAS has been used in many consumer products: food wrappings, containers, furniture carpets, and more. However, we have known for a while that these chemical compounds are incredibly stable, to the point they are granted the title of forever chemicals. Many of these compounds are suspected to be toxic.
The US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved PFAS for paper and cardboard coatings in 1967. Over time, PFAS-coated food wrapping became very popular; eventually, scientific studies showed these compounds could migrate into the food. PFAS compounds have been used extensively in fire-resistant products, firefighting foam, and many other industrial uses; as a result, many drinking water supplies have become contaminated with PFAS compounds. Studies by Northeastern University and the Environmental Working Group estimate that 19 million people are living in the US are drinking water contaminated with PFAS.
According to the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), “thousands of PFAS chemicals are found in many different consumer, commercial, and industrial products and exposure to some PFAS in the environment may be linked to harmful health effects in humans and animals.” One scientific report found PFAS in the blood of 97% of Americans. The overall contamination results from the massive manufacture and use of these compounds, their resistance to natural breakdown mechanisms, and what many consider a failure of multiple entities to regulate them on behalf of human and environmental health. What are substitutes for food packaging? Think back to simpler times: bamboo, palm leaves, wax-coated paper. Newer liquid-impervious alternatives are possible, but consumers must demand that the long-term consequences of all new chemical compounds are known. Remember that we lived without these compounds before 1967. – “identify the essential and eliminate the rest….” LEO BABAUTA.
Julie Peller Ph.D. is an environmental chemist (Professor of Chemistry at Valparaiso University ) and she leads the Environmental Ministry at Nativity of Our Savior in Portage IN. Julie has been writing a weekly column for church bulletins for the past ~6 years called the Green Junction and is helping to move the call of Laudato Si to action forward. Her Research Interests are in Advanced oxidation for aqueous solutions, water quality analyses, emerging contaminants, air quality analyses, Lake Michigan shoreline challenges (Cladophora, water, and sediment contaminants), student and citizen participation in environmental work.