The Right Chemistry

The road to eliminating fluorinated chemicals in food packaging

Cardboard packaging
ShutterstockYuriy Golub

Over the past 30 years, the public has grown increasingly concerned about the potential hazards of fluorinated chemicals. First invented in the 1930s, these chemicals soon were used in various applications, ranging from non-stick, stain and water-resistant coatings to firefighting foams.

By the 1970s, they had become the dominant means of waterproofing fabrics and non-stick coatings for cookware. Novel polymers based on fluorine chemistry soon followed (such as PTFE), and perfluorinated substances became the ubiquitous method of coating paper and other substrates used in food packaging to repel the oil, grease and moisture.  

While there was evidence as early as the 1980s regarding the environmental transport, persistence, bioaccumulation and potential toxicity of these chemicals, it was not until the 2000s that the EPA took action to address two of the most commonly used per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) chemicals, PFOA and PFOS. In the last five years, consumers have become more aware of these chemicals as more reports emerge about their use in everyday products such as food packaging, textiles, carpets and cookware. Recent reports of widespread contamination of drinking water supplies have been a catalyst for growing concerted efforts by state and local governments, NGOs, scientists and the legal community to adequately address the problem.  

One such effort was undertaken by the Garfield Foundation; in 2014, it brought together dozens of organizations to explore how to create an economy based on the prevention of cancer equal to the progress humanity has made in treating cancer as a disease. Four years later, the Cancer-Free Economy Network (CFEN), comprising over 50 member organizations (with 100 or more affiliate organizations), is working to achieve its vision:

Within a generation, we will lift the burden of cancers and other diseases by driving a dramatic and equitable transition from toxics to effective clean and safe alternatives.

The CFEN’s research has identified specific classes of cancer-causing chemicals for which we seek to find replacements through our collective efforts. One class is per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS). Previously referred to as perfluorinated chemicals (PFCs), PFAS represent a class of about 5,000 chemicals used for diverse product applications, most typically associated with repelling moisture, stains, oil, grease and fats. PFAS chemistries can be found in non-stick cookware, water repellant clothing, soil and stain resistant carpets, lubricants, fire-fighting foams, paints, coatings and certain types of food packaging materials.

Due to public concern and some high profile studies examining the use of PFAS in fast food packaging, the CFEN focused on replacing the use of PFAS in compostable coated paper, paperboard and molded fiber products with safer alternatives. One CFEN organization, the Center for Environmental Health (CEH), tested 138 products from 39 leading brands of compostable food service ware and published the results in its report, "A Purchaser’s Guide to Safer Foodware." Seventy-nine products out of 138 total tested positive for PFAS. Fifty-nine had no or low levels of fluorine, indicating an absence of intentionally added PFAS.

After the study, stakeholders — including large-volume purchasers of food packaging products — requested help identifying safer alternatives, and the CFEN PFAS working group created two fact sheets to educate and assist them. The PFAS Procurement Guide (PDF) gives a short summary of why PFAS are a concern and provides information for buyers about where to find safer PFAS-free products; the second factsheet, PFAS Hazard Fact Sheet (PDF), outlines the known hazards of this class of chemicals in more detail for brands looking for suppliers that sell PFAS-free coatings and materials.

One of the greatest opportunities for advancing a PFAS-free economy lies in collaborations between purchasers in the healthcare and retail sectors — to create effective market demand — and food packaging manufacturers — to supply products that replace PFAS with safer alternatives. To this end, next steps for CFEN’s PFAS working group will be to assemble stakeholders in this value chain to discuss key topics.

Topics include building a consensus-based definition of safer alternatives, providing resources for manufacturers to verify and communicate that replacements are not chemicals of equal concern ("regrettable substitutes") and increasing brand demand for alternatives to reward suppliers who make investments in their development. 

Organizations are also working to find safer alternatives to PFAS in firefighting foams used on military bases, aircraft carriers, civilian airports, municipal fire departments and fire training grounds as they are some of the primary sources of PFAS contamination of drinking water supplies. The EPA does not regulate PFAS chemicals in drinking water, but has issued a Lifetime Health Advisory (LHA) for PFOA and PFOS at 70 nanograms per liter (ng/L) or 70 parts per trillion (ppt).

Still, many in the scientific and NGO communities believe EPA’s maximum contaminant levels (MCLs) are significantly outdated and inadequate to protect human health. Some states, impatient with EPA’s lack of action, advocate limits between 5 to 14 ppt. Legislation has been introduced in Michigan to set a standard of 5 ppt for PFAS chemicals, and New Jersey’s Department of Environmental Protection has implemented regulations to enforce MCLs of 13-14 ppt for PFOA/PFOS. Vermont, New Hampshire and Alaska also have established binding cleanup levels for PFOA and PFOS.

Shifting the market to safer alternatives will require collaboration across the industry, from purchasers, brands, NGOs, local and state governments and the scientific community.