Read the full article by Kevin Jiang (Toronto Star)

“What do compostable burrito bowls, pastry containers and paper popcorn bags all have in common?

Aside from being marketed as ‘good for the environment,’ each has been found to carry high levels of toxic, long-lived chemicals called PFAS — or per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances — according to the first study of its kind in Canada.

The research, published Tuesday morning in journal Environmental Science & Technology Letters, analyzed 42 different samples of compostable fast food packaging sourced from restaurants in Toronto. Traces of PFAS were detected in just under half the samples, with 26 per cent containing what were considered high levels of the compounds.

Although sourced from Toronto, the same types of food packaging could be found in use across Canada, the researchers say.

One of the authors called the finding ‘really disturbing,’ especially given the numerous studies that found ‘population-wide health effects’ linked to PFAS consumption in Canada.

‘The industry is already moving away from (PFAS) use,’ said Miriam Diamond, the study’s principal investigator and a professor researching environment contaminants at the University of Toronto. The U.S. and EU recently passed legislation limiting its use, but Canada says it’s still researching the issue.

‘Our study, to be blunt, is intended to give the industry a bit more impetus to move faster,’ she told the Star.

Per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) are a class of synthetic compounds comprising over 4,700 different chemicals. For decades now, the stuff has been added to food packaging around the globe to toughen up fibre containers and make paper grease- and waterproof.

‘There is a large body of scientific literature on the health effects associated with exposure to PFAS,’ said Élyse Caron-Beaudoin, an assistant professor of environmental health at the University of Toronto, who spent several years researching PFAS. She is unaffiliated with the study.

‘Known health effects associated with exposure to PFAS include increased cholesterol levels, lower birth weight, increased risk of kidney and testicular cancer, endocrine disruption in particular on the thyroid function, decreased fertility,’ Caron-Beaudoin continued, in an email to the Star.

Although the PFAS class contains a myriad of different chemicals, each with their own ‘unique structure, properties and toxicities,’ Caron-Beaudoin said they are united in one aspect: ‘All PFAS are very persistent in the environment because their chemical structure makes them extremely resistant to degradation in the environment and in organisms.’

According to environmental advocacy group Clean Water Action, some PFAS can last over eight years inside our bodies, allowing the chemicals to slowly build up with repeat exposures over time. Out in the environment, some PFAS are incapable of naturally degrading.

‘Some PFAS are also mobile,’ Caron-Beaudoin said, meaning the chemicals are capable of travelling great distances across the globe, including to the Arctic, ‘… and some can significantly bioaccumulate in humans and animals.’

What food packaging contains PFAS?

According to Miriam Diamond, the greatest levels of PFAS were detected in the moulded fibre bowls often used to hold salads or burritos. In order for the bowls to hold their shape and not disintegrate on contact with water, large quantities of PFAS are often mixed in with the raw pulp during production, she said.

Paper bags designed to hold oily contents like pastries, doughnuts, burgers and popcorn also tested for high levels of PFAS, Diamond continued.

In contrast, packaging for wraps and other non-oily foodstuffs tested for minimal to no PFAS content.

Of the roughly 55 different common PFAS compounds scanned for, a chemical named 6:2 FTOH was among the most abundant, according to the paper. In addition to being linked to liver, kidney, thyroid and immune system damage; developmental issues in babies; hormonal imbalances; cancer development; and more, Diamond says 6:2 FTOH will eventually transform into other, more toxic compounds.

That’s an important point given the long-term impacts of PFAS on the environment, especially as these bowls and wrappers are intended for the compost.

How do PFAS enter our bodies?

In addition to the many studies that found PFAS could leach from food packaging into the food itself, Diamond said even those who have never touched a burrito bowl could be impacted. Ironically, the problem lies with the packaging’s environmentally-friendly nature.

‘Composting is good and we should be able to compost in full,’ Diamond said. ‘But, when these materials go in the compost, they release PFAS. And then that compost gets spread, thereby distributing the PFAS all over the place.

‘We absolutely should not have any PFAS in (our compost) because that could be going into your vegetable garden.’

Another major concern is that PFAS love to travel through water, and wastewater treatment plants struggle to filter the chemicals out.

‘So when it’s found in landfill leachate, it goes to a wastewater treatment plant (and is) not removed. Then it gets discharged into water that we use for drinking,’ Diamond said. ‘It’s just terrible.’

In their paper, Miriam Diamond’s team predicted the use of PFAS-containing packaging to rise across Canada, after a recent policy backfired with ‘amazingly counterintuitive’ results, she said.

In late 2022, the federal government enacted a ban on single-use plastics in food packaging. In response, the food industry gravitated toward ‘green’ alternatives, which may contain greater levels of PFAS: ‘a regrettable substitution of trading one harmful option for another,’ the researchers wrote.”…