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NGO tests find PFAS in 38% of European paper food-service ware

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A study from the Prague-based environmental NGO Arnika has reported that it has detected per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) in paper board and moulded fibre disposable food packaging and tableware in Europe.

Arnika notes that out of 99 samples, 38 ‘showed an intentional treatment with PFAS.’ This included packaging from major global fast food chains – such as McDonald’s, KFC, Subway, and Dunkin’ Donuts – it reports. An initial assessment using an oil repellency test was used to select 42 samples for laboratory tests to gauge their total organic fluorine (TOF) content, using a methodology developed by Danish state scientists.

Arnika says that ‘traces of PFAS were detected in all samples selected for lab analysis, including samples not intentionally treated with PFAS.’ The sample were collected from six states – the Czech Republic, Denmark, France, Germany, the Netherlands, and the United Kingdom.

The fibre packs selected from both supermarkets and fast-food outlets are mostly intended for direct food contact, such as wraps, bowls, pizza boxes and clamshells. There are some items – such as paper napkins or carry-out bags – that might typically not directly contact food for prolonged periods.

In some instances the study says that TOF levels measured were 25 times higher than the ‘indicator value’ established by the Danish Veterinary and Food Administration. It adds that ‘less than 1% of the TOF present in the PFAS-treated samples could be assigned to specific PFAS chemicals identified via targeted analysis.’ This leads the authors to conclude that ‘over 99% of the total PFAS load remains unidentified.’

Arnika was joined in the study by several other NGOs, many of which have campaigned for tighter restrictions and the phasing-out of PFAS across the continent. This lobbying is now focusing on the forthcoming group assessment of PFAS, announced by the EU in October 2021.

Publishing the new research, Arnika’s science advisor Jitka Strakova says: ‘It is high time for the EU to act and immediately and permanently ban the entire class of PFAS in food packaging, to protect consumers. It is clearly not essential to use highly toxic and persistent chemicals, posing such a serious health and environmental risk, in throw-away food packaging, especially when there are safer alternatives.’

Arnika also cites Denmark’s ban on PFAS in fast-food formats which was enacted in July 2020, as evidence that a phase-out can be completed. It reports none of the 2021 samples from the country had PFAS detected.

Arnika’s expert on toxic substances in consumer goods, Karolina Brabcová, adds: ‘As McDonald’s [has] succeeded in eliminating PFAS in their Danish fast-food stores, it is easily achievable for McDonald’s to phase out PFAS from its food packaging globally by much earlier than [its current target of] 2025.’

The most frequently detected PFAS was 6:2 fluorotelomer alcohol (6:2 FTOH). The highest PFAS concentrations were consistently found in moulded fibre products, which have been advanced as a more sustainable packaging solution that has conventional plastic food contact items. Common formats for these are bowls, plates, and food boxes.

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*Article originally published in Smithers' Food Contact World.