The End Is Nearer for ‘Forever Chemicals’ in Food Wrappers

The containers that hold your takeout dinner may harbor an invisible threat: fluorinated compounds that persist in our bodies long after we ingest them. They are among almost 5,000 perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl substances, or PFAS, a class of chemicals that have been associated with health hazards that include liver damage, birth defects, cancer, and impaired immunity.PFAS repel grease, oil, and water—properties that have come in handy for a wide range of uses since the chemicals were first created in the 1940s. For decades, they have kept food from sticking on pans, hot oil from burning a hole in the microwave popcorn bag, and grease from leaking out of pizza boxes and burger wrappings. The bond between chains of carbon and fluorine atoms is extraordinarily sturdy, which means the compounds persist in the environment and can accumulate in humans and animals. PFAS have been found in the blood of nearly every American tested, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Last week, the US Food and Drug Administration announced a voluntary agreement with three manufacturers of chemical products used in food packaging to phase out a PFAS called 6:2 fluorotelomer alcohol, or 6:2 FTOH. (A fourth manufacturer joined the agreement but had already stopped selling the products.) The move comes as food retailers face growing pressure to switch to PFAS-free packaging. Companies as varied as Taco Bell and Whole Foods have vowed to be proactive in seeking wrappings and containers without the chemicals.
“This action follows new analyses of data that raised questions about potential human health risks from chronic dietary exposure—findings that warrant further study,” FDA commissioner Stephen Hahn and Susan Mayne, director of the FDA’s Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition, wrote in a statement. “This phase-out balances uncertainty about the potential for public health risks with minimizing potential market disruptions to food packaging supply chains during the Covid-19 public health emergency.”

Earlier this year, FDA scientists published rodent studies showing that 6:2 FTOH breaks down into a metabolite that persists in blood plasma and body tissues. FDA scientists also analyzed toxicity data and found evidence of liver, kidney, immune, and reproductive effects related to the compound in rodents. The new findings contradict some previous assumptions about how 6:2 FTOH acts in the body, the scientists wrote, and previous assessments “may significantly underestimate the risk to human health.”

The FDA doesn’t consider all PFAS to be hazardous, and there’s no immediate health risk from the existing products, agency spokesperson Peter Cassell told WIRED. The phase-out will take up to five years. Beginning in January 2021, manufacturers have three years to wind down production, and then existing products can still be used for another 18 months. The FDA will monitor the progress in reducing the use of 6:2 FTOH and will continue to study PFAS.
The FDA action received muted praise from environmental health advocates and scientists. “I’d say it’s better than nothing. It’s a step in the right direction,” says Linda Birnbaum, a toxicologist and former director of the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences.Removing these “forever chemicals” from the food supply has long been a goal of consumer and environmental health advocates. Their pervasiveness became clear through a 2017 study led by environmental chemist Laurel Schaider at Silent Spring Institute in Newton, Massachusetts, a research group that focuses on environmental health risks. Her study involved tests of about 400 fast-food containers from around the US. The scientists detected fluorine, an indicator of the presence of PFAS, in 38 percent of sandwich and burger wrappers and 56 percent of bread and dessert wrappers.