New study exposes widespread presence of toxic 'forever chemicals' in Canadian fast food packaging

New study exposes widespread presence of toxic 'forever chemicals' in Canadian fast food packaging

Sustainability

According to a recent study conducted by researchers at the University of Toronto (Canada), Indiana University (US), and the University of Notre Dame (US), food packaging is a direct source of exposure to "forever chemicals." These harmful substances, which have been linked to serious health risks such as heightened cancer risk and damage to the immune system, contaminate the food consumed by individuals.

From cosmetics and clothing to furniture and even paper bowls used in Canadian fast-food packaging, the presence of "forever chemicals" is widespread.

In a recent study, Professor Miriam L. Diamond and her team examined 42 paper-based fast-food wrappers and bowls, often promoted as eco-friendly alternatives to single-use plastics, collected from Toronto restaurants.

Their aim was to detect potentially toxic PFAS (perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl substances), of which there are over 9,000 varieties worldwide.

Paperboard clamshell for fast food credit L. W. Yang
Paperboard clamshell for fast food By L. W. Yang - originally posted to Flickr as the Giant, CC BY 2.0

The study revealed that the most prevalent compound in the samples was 6:2 fluorotelomer alcohol (6:2 FTOH), a known toxic PFAS. Additionally, the study found that fibre-based compostable bowls had PFAS levels three to ten times higher than paper doughnut and pastry bags.

"As Canada restricts single-use plastics in food-service ware, our research shows that what we like to think of as the better alternatives are not so safe and green after all," Diamond says. "In fact, they may harm our health and the environment by providing a direct route to PFAS exposure – first by contaminating the food we eat, and after they're thrown away, polluting our air and drinking water. The use of PFAS in food packaging is a regrettable substitution of trading one harmful option – single-use plastics – for another."

Diamond, an environmental chemist and chemical management expert, is committed to identifying the most significant sources of PFAS exposure and encouraging efforts to limit their prevalence. As she points out, the term "forever" would be irrelevant if these chemicals were never introduced in the first place.

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