High levels of potentially toxic chemicals have been found in packaging from leading high street food brands and supermarkets.
A new report by environmental charity Fidra has revealed significant levels of so-called ‘forever chemicals’ present in 90% of food packaging tested including bakery and cookie bags.
PFAS (per and poly-fluorinated alkyl substances) are a group of over 4,500 industrial chemicals associated with a wide range of health and environmental issues, from cancer in humans to neurological problems in animals. They are often referred to as forever chemicals because they can take over 1000 years to breakdown.
The chemicals are added to paper and board food packaging to repel oil and water. Fidra tested a range of packaging collected from major UK supermarkets Aldi, Asda, Co-op, Lidl, Morrisons, Marks and Spencer, Tesco, Sainsbury’s and Waitrose, including bakery bags, cookie bags, microwave popcorn packets and greaseproof paper, to determine whether or not they contained PFAS.
It also tested packaging from a number of major takeaway chains including Caffè Nero, Costa, Greggs, Pret a Manger, Starbucks and Dominos, an independent café, chip shop, pizza outlet and a workplace cafeteria.
All products, with the exception of greaseproof baking papers, were found to contain forever chemicals with Fidra noting that the highest concentrations found in UK food packaging were 300 times the limit for new Danish laws that will come into force in July this year.
There are over 4500 PFAS but only two have been studied in depth, both of which are now banned because they were found to be toxic. Fidra said that given a lack of toxicity data on the vast majority of PFAS in use, the direct risk to human health cannot be conclusively determined.
It is calling for UK supermarkets to remove PFAS from their food packaging and governments to regulate all PFAS as a group.
‘’Our results clearly show that PFAS are widely used in UK food packaging,” said report author Dr Kerry Dinsmore of Fidra. “With mounting evidence on their harmful effects, continuing to use and release these forever chemicals into our environment is a risk we simply cannot take.”
The Danish Coop successfully phased out PFAS from their food packaging in 2015 and legislation due to come into force in July 2020 will ensure all Danish food industries follow suit.
UK companies have also begun to address the issue. A leading UK packaging supplier said: “Through extensive R&D and investment, we have now developed PFAS-free solutions to replace our current moulded fibre products, which we are phasing in starting in Q2 2020. As a company we are working to be entirely PFAS-free by the end of 2021, or sooner if possible. We invite all other industry players to do the same as soon as practicable.”
The publication of the report coincides with the release of a new film Dark Waters, starring Mark Ruffalo, which tells the story of how chemical giant DuPont was found to have knowingly poisoned an entire community for decades with PFAS.