The use of persistent and health-harming PFAS chemicals in disposable food packaging and tableware is a widespread practice across Europe, as shown in a recent campaign and study undertaken by Czech NGO Arnika, in cooperation with the Health and Environment Alliance (HEAL), CHEM Trust and six other non-profit organisations in Europe . Out of 42 samples sent for analysis, 32 samples including packaging from major global fast-food chains such as McDonalds, KFC, Subway or Dunkin Donuts showed an intentional treatment with PFAS .
The organisations – almost all of which are members of the EDC-Free Europe campaign – found that:
- PFAS are widely used in disposable food packaging and tableware in Europe. 38 out of the 99 samples (38%) collected from takeaways, supermarkets and e-shops in 6 European countries (Czech Republic, Denmark, France, Germany, the Netherlands and the United Kingdom) are suspected to have been treated with PFAS chemicals in order to achieve oil repellency.
- 32 out of 42 samples selected for chemical analysis (76%) show intentional treatment with PFAS.
- Traces of PFAS were detected in all samples selected for lab analysis, even samples not intentionally treated with PFAS.
- 99% of the organic fluorine present in selected samples is not captured by the laboratory’s compound-specific analysis of 55 PFAS, meaning it is impossible to identify the present PFAS compounds with certainty.
Why this matters:
PFAS (per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances) are also called “forever chemicals” because they are extremely persistent in nature, hardly decompose, and contaminate drinking water, soil or air. By definition and design, single-use packaging is thrown away immediately after being used. Because it is used in very high volumes, it creates a large amount of waste containing toxic PFAS chemicals. These forever chemicals especially pollute drinking water , therefore remaining and accumulating in the environment and the food chain.
Scientific studies have associated exposure to a number of PFAS with severe adverse health effects, including cancer, and impacts on the immune, reproductive and hormone systems, as well as with a reduced response to vaccinations . In the context of food packaging, studies have shown that PFAS can migrate from the packaging into the food, adding to the overall PFAS exposure of the general population
“It is high time for the European Union to act and immediately and permanently ban the entire class of PFAS in food packaging, to protect the consumers in the first place. It is clearly not essential to use highly toxic and persistent chemicals, posing such a serious health and environmental risk, in throw-away food packaging, especially when there are safer alternatives,” says Jitka Strakova, the main author of the study and Arnika / International Pollutants Elimination Network (IPEN) science advisor.
Unnecessary uses, double standards and safer alternatives
Where regulation has been put in place, it has effectively incentivised companies to move away from using PFAS compounds. In Denmark, the use of forever chemicals in paper and board food packaging has been banned since July 2020. The study found that none of the sampled McDonald’s French fries bags bought in Denmark exhibited PFAS treatment. However, intentional PFAS treatment was found for the same items bought in the Czech Republic and the United Kingdom. This shows that legislation can and does protect people from exposure to harmful chemicals. It also highlights that the lack of EU-wide harmonised regulations for food contact materials results in different levels of protection across countries.
“When Europe's stated objective is zero pollution for a non-toxic environment, we cannot accept that food packaging disposed of within a matter of minutes is treated with chemicals that persist and accumulate in the environment and are increasingly being associated with severe health impacts. The large European PFAS restriction under development is a once-in-a-century opportunity to address such uses and work towards phasing out the production and uses of PFAS, wherever they are unnecessary and it is possible,” says Natacha Cingotti, Health and Chemicals Lead at the Health and Environment Alliance (HEAL).
“PFAS pollution is so ubiquitous that we found PFAS even in products which have not been intentionally treated with these chemicals. The same PFAS contaminants have been found in the Arctic air, snow and wildlife. Every year of delay in regulating this group of ‘forever chemicals’ increases the pollution burden for future generations of people and wildlife. A ban on all non-essential uses of PFAS chemicals should be urgently implemented,” says Dr Julie Schneider, PFAS Campaigner at CHEM Trust.
As shown by the study, alternatives to PFAS-treated take-away packaging exist and are available on the market, including disposable paper and board packaging (e.g., sandwich and fries’ bags, and cardboard bakery and pizza boxes). Durable and reusable alternatives to moulded fibre tableware are also largely available for consumers, restaurants and retailers. The safest way for consumers is to move away from single-use packaging and to bring their own reusable containers when purchasing take-away food, according to the experts. To easily find out the presence of PFAS in fast-food packaging, consumers can do the bead test themselves.
 99 samples of disposable food packaging and tableware made of paper, board and moulded plant fibre were purchased in six different countries including United Kingdom, Denmark, Germany, France, the Netherlands and the Czech Republic between May and December 2020 (e.g., sandwich and bakery bags, take-away food boxes). BUND (Germany), CHEM Trust (UK), Danish Consumer Council (Denmark), Générations Futures (France), the Health and Environment Alliance (HEAL) (Belgium), Tegengif-Erase all Toxins (Netherlands), International Pollutants Elimination Network (IPEN) (International) and ClientEarth (UK) participated in the testing.
 The total of 42 samples were analysed by an accredited laboratory for their Total Organic Fluorine (TOF) content, an accepted proxy for total PFAS content as well as 55 individual PFAS substances. Less than 1% of the total organic fluorine present in the PFAS-treated samples could be assigned to specific PFAS chemicals identified via targeted analysis. This means that over 99% of the total PFAS load remains unidentified.This is of concern; because we know that all PFAS persist in the environment, that exposure to certain PFAS chemicals can have harmful effects on health, and that some can migrate from the packaging into the food.
 The far-reaching results of forever chemicals polluting drinking water is depicted in the film Dark Waters (2019). Dark Waters tells the shocking story of how a heroic attorney fought to uncover a dark secret hidden by one of the world’s largest corporations, who poisoned a town for decades with a PFAS chemical https://www.env-health.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/06/DW-THINKFILM-PFAS-BRIEFING-FINAL-002.pdf
 See for instance: https://pfastoxdatabase.org/ ; https://www.eea.europa.eu/publications/emerging-chemical-risks-in-europe
This project is a joint collaborative of the following organisations:
Arnika Association (Czech Republic) is a non-governmental organisation established in 2001. Its mission is to protect the nature and healthy environment for future generations both at home and abroad. Since the beginning Arnika has been working on protection of consumers from chemically hazardous products. Lately, Arnika has been making own research focusing on persistent organic chemicals in products. Arnika serves as a regional hub for Central, Eastern and Western Europe for IPEN. www.arnika.org
CHEM Trust is a collaboration between CHEM Trust, a UK registered Charity and CHEM Trust Europe eV, a charitybased in Germany. Our overarching aim is to prevent synthetic chemicals from causing long term damage to wildlife or humans. CHEM Trust’s particular concerns are endocrine disrupting chemicals, persistent chemicals, the cocktail effect of chemicals and the role of chemical exposures in the early life of wildlife and humans. CHEM Trust engages with scientific, environmental, medical and policy communities to improve the dialogue concerning the role of adverse effects of chemicals in wildlife and humans and to harness a wide coalition to drive improved chemicals policy and regulation. CHEM Trust UK Charity Register Number: 1118182; EU Transparency Register Number: 27053044762-72. chemtrust.org
BUND/Friend of the Earth Germany is an association for environmental protection and nature conservation aimed at bringing about sustainable development on a local, regional, national and international level. We are a member based association with democratic decision-making structures on all levels, within which elected voluntary officials have the final say on goals, strategies and use of the association’s resources. We develop long-term strategies and solutions, set goals aimed at protecting the environment and nature, and demonstrate through the realization of individual projects that sustainability can be put into everyday practice in our society. www.bund.net
Danish Consumer Council (Denmark) is an independent consumer organisation created in 1947 which works for the promotion of sustainable and socially responsible consumption. We defend consumer rights and make consumers a power in the market. Through chemical testing and communication to consumers the initiative Danish Consumer Council Think Chemicals specifically helps consumers avoid problematic chemicals when shopping. www.kemi.taenk.dk
The Health and Environment Alliance (HEAL) (Belgium) is the leading not-for-profit organisation addressing how the environment affects human health in the European Union (EU) and beyond. HEAL works to shape laws and policies that promote planetary and human health and protect those most affected by pollution, and raise awareness on the benefits of environmental action for health. HEAL’s EU Transparency Register Number: 00723343929-96. www.env-health.org
Tegengif - Erase all Toxins (The Netherlands) is a not-for-profit organisation based in Amsterdam. Our aim is a non-toxic living environment. We raise public awareness of consumers’ daily exposure to toxic chemicals via appealing research, campaigning and policy influencing. We believe growing awareness will both stimulate the demand for toxin-free products and increase public support for regulations for a toxin-free world. https://www.erasealltoxins.org
Générations Futures (France) has been campaigning on pesticides related topics in France for over 25 years. It has become the reference specialized NGO in France on this issue. GF has a unique expertise on pesticides and health campaigning in France and a strong track record of reaching out to grassroots organizations and the public, as well as to national and European policy-makers and the media. GF extended its activities to other categories of chemicals with a new campaign named ‘Desintox’. Its various activities include surveys, conferences, product testing, legal actions and
publication of reports to raise awareness among the public and decision makers. www.generations-futures.fr/
IPEN. Established in 1998, International Pollutants Elimination Network (IPEN) is currently comprised of over 600 Participating Organisations in primarily developing and transition countries. IPEN brings together leading environmental and public health groups around the world to establish and implement safe chemicals policies and practices that protect human health and the environment. IPEN’s mission is a toxics-free future for all. www.ipen.org