Warning: Food packaging may contain PFAS.Photo: yum9me (Flickr)
From Disney World to Seattle, plastic straw bans have become, well, trendy. So it's perhaps no surprise that San Francisco became the latest city to move toward banning the drink accessory, as well as unrequested napkins and utensils for deliveries and take out, earlier this week (it still requires a second vote to be finalised).
But what's unique is that the California city is targeting more than just plastics. It plans to eliminate single-use food containers that contain fluorinated substances, also known as PFAS. That would put the city among the first places in the country to ban them.
These group of synthetic chemicals — including perfluorooctane sulfonate (PFOS) and perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) — have gained attention for their use in firefighting foam, but they're also used on your favourite non-stick pan, in that bag of microwavable popcorn you love to whip up for Friday movie nights, and on the disposable containers and wrappers many restaurants use because they help keep grease and water from sticking to the paper.
This group of chemicals has been linked to cancer, hormone disruption, obesity, and immune system dysfunction. People can ingest them through the packaged food itself or even drinking water. Because they coat disposable food products, they can end up in our environment when thrown out. And their chemical properties keep them from breaking down once they're there, increasing the odds we end up consuming them.
In Michigan, one city has been advising residents since Thursday to not drink the water after finding PFAS levels were 20 times above the federal limit at 1,587 parts per trillion. The health effects of the chemicals are so wild that the Environmental Protection Agency and White House tried to block a report about it earlier this year that found suggested drinking water limits be as low as 12 parts per trillion (five times less than the EPA's standards).
"More and more contamination issues — serious, serious contamination issues — of communities are popping up all over, starting with the lead issue in Flint to these PFAS drinking water contamination concerns in different communities all over," said Sue Chiang, the pollution prevention director with the Center for Environmental Health, a nonprofit advocating against these chemicals, to Earther.
Places like San Francisco have good reason to restrict these chemicals. The ordinance would take hold starting in 2020 to "prohibit sale, use, and distribution within the City of single-use food service ware items that are not free of fluorinated chemicals," per the text. This will help them maintain safe and clean waterways.
San Francisco isn't alone. Washington state moved to ban the use of PFAS in firefighting foam earlier this year. The state also passed legislation to keep food contact paper PFAS-free starting in 2022 after the state's Department of Ecology has had enough time to conduct an assessment to ensure there are safer replacements, making it the first state to ban the chemicals in either form.
Bans like these haven't picked up the steam plastic straw bans have yet, but they could be starting to. After all, restricting waste that's full of PFAS does more than benefit the environment. It directly benefits human health. But Chiang cautions against separating the two issues. Both ultimately affect people.
"It's all part of the same problem," Chiang told Earther. "All this plastic and microplastic is building up, and it's getting into our food chain. There's a lot of connection and synergy between the plastic pollution problem and the issue with all these toxic chemicals in our environment."
Look at seafood, for instance. The PFAS that ends up water can end up in fish, which can end up on a sushi plate in front of us.
Qi Sun, an assistant professor of nutrition at Harvard University, has studied the ways these chemicals can lead to weight gain, so he knows where they end up. He also knows they will be hard to eliminate, especially if industry doesn't have a solid (and safe) replacement.
"They're very useful," Sun told Earther. "It is challenging to really wipe out and discontinue the use of all those chemicals, but more realistically we can ask for more close monitoring and regulation."
He thinks that's a solid first step to keeping these chemicals out of our waterways and bodies. He's down with these bans because he knows the damage these chemicals can do, but Sun is also a realist. What'll really get companies to find safer alternatives to these chemicals is consumer demand.
"Consumers, when their minds change, industry will follow," he said.