The food that I serve my three children is likely to contain unwanted substances due to contaminated soil, air or water. It’s sad, but it’s a fact.
What I struggle to understand is why problematic substances are intentionally added to the materials used to package food. Isn’t that equivalent to inviting these chemicals to slip into our food?
One example of such problematic chemicals are fluorinated substances, which we at the Danish Consumer Council THINK Chemicals have recently studied in cooperation with other consumer organisations in Europe.
Fluorinated substances are used to make food packaging grease and water repellent. But they also persist in the environment, and some accumulate in the body. Their suspected impact on our health ranges from increased risk of miscarriage to a negative influence on the immune system.
So it’s no surprise that scientists want them out of our food, and out of our lives.
Fluorinated substances in half of tested packages
Disturbingly, our European market study found fluorinated substances in about half of the paper and cardboard food packaging we tested. Some of the substances we found are considered by the EU to be ‘of very high concern’[i], such as PFOA, a chemical once used to make Teflon pans and other cookware. Almost one third of the 65 samples contained fluorinated substances in levels indicating that they were used intentionally by packaging makers. In other words, the levels were too high to have occurred by chance.
The packaging material we tested included paper bags for French fries and wrappers for sandwiches, burgers and muffins – in short, packaging that many consumers come into contact with frequently. Although we did not look at concentrations in the foods themselves, we know from other research that fluorinated substances migrate from packaging to food.
Beware the cocktail effect
Let’s not forget that our exposure to fluorinated substances does not stop at fast food packaging. In fact, our exposure occurs through many sources including clothing, other textile products and personal care products, as well as from the indoor environment.
Even though a single exposure does not in itself pose a risk to human health, the combined exposure could. This is known as the cocktail effect.
The Danish guidance limit
The EU has no common rules on the use of fluorinated substances in food packaging. But in Denmark we are fortunate enough to have national food authorities and politicians who listen to scientists’ concerns. They are of the opinion that companies should avoid intentionally using fluorinated substances. The Danish authorities have therefore set a limit value that is so low that manufacturers that follow it cannot use fluorinated substances.
Although this limit is purely voluntary, the Danish authorities’ message is clear: manufacturers should avoid the use of fluorinated substances in materials that come in contact with food. However, not all manufacturers seem to listen.
In Denmark, we found that 4 out of 13 types of paper packaging contained fluorinated substances in quantities significantly higher than the recommended limit value. Although we found more or less the same number of fluorine-positive samples in the four other EU countries, this result is disappointing. Indeed, our authorities have been advising against the intentional use of fluorinated substances for more than one and a half years.
The Danish authorities’ message is clear: manufacturers should avoid the use of fluorinated substances in materials that come in contact with food.
In a way, the prompt reaction from several companies was very encouraging: two of them immediately withdrew the problematic packaging and yet another two promised to find alternatives in the near future. This is good news. But voluntary action and recommended limit values are clearly not enough. What is needed instead is an EU regulation of fluorinated substances. In the meantime, we at the Danish Consumer Council strongly encourage manufacturers to avoid the use of fluorinated substances.
Good news: alternatives do exist
Back at home, my family and I only use baking paper and muffin forms that carry the Nordic Ecolabel. Fluorinated substances are banned from these certified products, and they work just as well. Microwave popcorn has also been a ‘no go’ for quite some time. Instead, we pop corn the traditional way: with oil in a pot on the stove.
Unfortunately, it is impossible for me to make a non-fluorinated choice when it comes to a number of other products. In these cases we must depend on the manufacturers’ willingness to find safer solutions. And we know these alternatives exist, because in half of the products we tested we found no signs of fluorinated substances. Now we just need the manufacturers to choose the non-fluorinated alternative.
On our side, at the Danish Consumer Council, we promise to keep testing for the presence of fluorinated substances. This will hopefully enable consumers to make better choices for the environment and for their health. And it will potentially help manufacturers and politicians to finally listen to scientists’ recommendations.
Stine Müller is Project Manager at the Danish Consumer Council THINK Chemicals.