What unregulated toxic chemicals have polluted the drinking water and food supply of millions of Americans and are lurking in the dust and air inside of your home? A new peer-reviewed study shows they’re building up in our bodies, even contaminating breast milk.
We’re talking about per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS), the "forever chemicals," which can persist in the environment for hundreds, likely thousands of years, and wreak havoc on our health and communities. They can weaken our immune system, making us more vulnerable to infectious diseases such as COVID-19. A growing body of scientific research has found links between exposures to PFAS and a wide range of health problems including cancer, increased cholesterol levels, pregnancy-induced hypertension, liver damage, reduced fertility and increased risk of thyroid disease.
PFAS are found in everything from food packaging to stain-resistant rugs to raincoats sold at popular retailers. Their widespread use has been fueled by their non-stick properties that resist grease and stains and repel water.
But we have a reason for hope. Our new annual report card that benchmarks the nation’s biggest retailers uncovered an emerging sustainability trend. Retailers are leveraging their market power to reduce and eliminate PFAS in food packaging, textiles and other products in favor of safer alternatives.
The fifth annual "Who’s Minding the Store? A Report Card on Retailer Actions to Eliminate Toxic Chemicals" evaluated and graded the chemical policies and practices of 50 retail chains that sell products at more than 200,000 stores throughout the U.S. and Canada.
Driving PFAS out of food packaging
PFAS are added to some fast-food wrappers and take-out containers. The packaging is used once but the chemicals can last forever in the environment. Washington state was the first state to put in place a ban on PFAS in food packaging in 2018, which started a cascade effect in the marketplace.
The retailer report card found that corporate bans and restrictions on the use of these "forever chemicals" in food packaging have grown considerably since years past. The report found that 12 retailers have pledged to eliminate or reduce PFAS in food packaging at more than 65,000 stores worldwide. During the last year alone, McDonald’s, Taco Bell, Whole Foods Market, Sweetgreen, Chipotle, Panera, Rite Aid, Amazon and other major chains have tackled PFAS in food packaging.
Progress has been driven in part by a national study we released last summer that analyzed packaging from six restaurant chains, including fast-food giants Wendy’s, McDonald’s and Burger King. Testing suggested that one or more food packaging items from every chain sampled contained PFAS.
In late March, Wendy’s announced it would ban PFAS from its consumer-facing packaging in the U.S. and Canada by the end of 2021, one-upping McDonald’s, which set a 2025 goal. Of the six restaurants we tested in 2020, Wendy’s became the fifth to announce a ban on PFAS in food packaging.
Burger King is the last major holdout of those we sampled. We launched a petition urging the company to ban PFAS. Our testing indicated that these chemicals are used in packaging for popular Burger King products — including the Whopper. And Burger King sells more than 2 billion Whoppers a year globally.
Forever chemicals in our clothing
The retailer report card also found that some retailers have taken recent action to restrict PFAS in textiles, include water-repellent clothing and stain-resistant treatments for carpet, rugs, couches and other fabric
Lowe’s became the first major retailer to announce it no longer will sell fabric protection sprays containing PFAS. Outdoor gear supplier REI is restricting PFAS in all after-market clothing treatment (and ski wax products) but has not yet acted on all PFAS in outdoor apparel and other textiles.
Retailers are leveraging their market power to reduce and eliminate PFAS in food packaging, textiles and other products in favor of safer alternatives.
In 2020, Target also reported some limited progress on PFAS in textiles since the previous year: "For owned-brand textiles, we were able to remove PFCs from our apparel products. As we make progress on removing PFCs from additional categories, we are expanding the scope of chemistry that we are evaluating to a broader class of chemistry that PFCs are a part of: perfluorinated alkyl substances (PFAS)." However, Target has not yet eliminated PFAS in all textiles it sells.
This class-based approach is essential to ensure that suppliers are not replacing one highly toxic, persistent member of the PFAS class of chemicals with another.
Regulatory pressure continues to increase
In addition to Washington state, several other states and local governments have taken policy action to phase out PFAS and other classes of toxic chemicals from food packaging and products in favor of safer alternatives. Maine and New York enacted phase-outs of PFAS in food packaging. New York’s law takes effect in December 2022. Similar bills are pending in California, Vermont and other states.
Congress soon will take up federal legislation to ban PFAS in food packaging, the Keep Food Containers Safe from PFAS Act, which will be reintroduced by U.S. Rep. Debbie Dingell (D-Michigan). The European Union has also proposed a ban on all "non-essential" uses of PFAS.
To stay ahead of this wave of regulation, retailers should harmonize their efforts with the leading states. Unfortunately, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and other agencies are failing to take prevention-based measures that adequately safeguard public health from all PFAS.
Fortunately, proactive states are stepping up to create protections. Retailers should align with them to meet consumer demand for safe and healthy products.
Five recommendations for retailers to 'mind the store'
Retailers may face substantial financial and regulatory risks associated with PFAS and other toxic chemicals. Retailer reputation and customer loyalty are also in jeopardy. Self-policing by industry and product manufacturers will not satisfy the concerns of millions of consumers who are voting with their dollars and demanding greater transparency and safer products.
Further, long overdue demands are mounting to deliver environmental justice to Black, brown and Indigenous people and other people of color who are disproportionately impacted by toxic pollution, from where products are made in places such as cancer alley Louisiana to where they are disposed of in incinerators and landfills. Environmental justice concerns associated with specific beauty, personal care and other consumer products are also on the rise. Retailers will be increasingly challenged to demonstrate their commitment to address these issues.
Many companies are focused on sustainability plans and climate policies, which also should have a strong focus on reducing and eliminating hazardous chemical and plastics use at their core. Clean materials made from fossil fuel free sources that are not polluting communities and threatening health that can be safely reused or recycled is key to a healthy future for all.
Here are five ways leading retailers can reduce their risks from PFAS and other hazardous chemicals.
1. Policy: Adopt and publish a bold safer chemicals policy that shows a commitment to protecting the most vulnerable and addressing disproportionate impacts. This policy should ensure senior management is engaged, hold suppliers accountable and measure and publicly report on continuous improvement toward reducing, eliminating and safely substituting PFAS and other hazardous chemicals and toxic plastics in products, packaging and global supply chains.
Retailers will continue to play a critical role in helping to solve the national PFAS crisis by leveraging their purchasing power to drive the development of safer chemicals and healthier products.
2. Goals and metrics: Set clear, ambitious public goals with timelines and quantifiable metrics to measure success in eliminating PFAS and other classes of chemicals of high concern as well as plastics of environmental health concern, and in reducing retailers’ chemical footprint.
3. Transparency: Embrace "radical transparency" to meet rising consumer demand for the full public disclosure of chemical ingredients in products and packaging, including fragrance and other generic ingredients. Publicly report on safer chemicals policies and both the progress made and challenges in eliminating harmful chemicals and plastics and using safer alternatives.
4. Avoid regrettable substitution: We’ll never solve these problems if suppliers replace PFAS with other hazardous chemicals. Businesses must invest in assessing safer alternatives using tools such as those offered by the GreenScreen, ChemFORWARD and Scivera to ensure informed substitution. Retailers also should evaluate and track progress by participating in the annual Chemical Footprint Project survey.
5. Stay ahead of and support government regulation: As toxic chemical policies continue to gain traction in more states and PFAS gets greater attention from the Biden administration, retailers must act. Retailers can mitigate regulatory risks and stay ahead of the curve by adopting and implementing ambitious safer chemicals policies. Retailers also should support state and federal policy reform to advance ingredient transparency, eliminate toxic chemicals and incentivize the development of green chemistry solutions so as to level the competitive playing field.
Retailers will continue to play a critical role in helping to solve the national PFAS crisis by leveraging their purchasing power to drive the development of safer chemicals and healthier products. By further safeguarding the health of consumers, communities, workers and the environment, retailers can thrive.