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PFAS – What is it and why you should care?

A big talking point at the moment within the food packaging industry and by our customers and their consumers is around PFAS. This got us thinking at Berica. In our recent blog Lifting the Lid on Pizza Box Recycling (Are pizza boxes recyclable), we discussed the PFAS problem with one of the nation’s favourite takeaway treats.

In this article, you’ll discover what PFAS is, what are the three persistent problems with PFAS and more importantly why we should be worried and finally what is Berica’s view on PFAS.

What is PFAS?

PFAS, or polyfluoroalkyl and perfluoroalkyl substances, are synthetic, long-lasting chemicals used in a wide range of industries and consumer products. As the components break down so slowly over time, they are known as “forever chemicals” among the scientific community. Most significantly, it’s the effects that these chemicals have on human health and the environment which is causing concern.

PFAS were popularised in the 1950s and what makes them so attractive to manufacturers is that PFAS are resistant to water, oil and heat. They are used to keep clothes and carpets stain-free, umbrellas and outdoor leisure equipment water repellent, and PFAS are key ingredients in creating the non-stick coating found on fry pans.

PFAS compounds have been found in groundwater, surface water (and drinking water) and soil, shellfish, eggs, poultry and even in some fruit, such as oranges.

What are the three persistent problems with PFAS?

  • Firstly, it bio-accumulates, which means it can move from the external environment into organisms from all possible exposure routes. So, how far can it spread?
  • Secondly, as it is long-lasting and ubiquitous, how far has it spread?
  • Thirdly, and critically, how harmful is it?

A large body of scientific evidence is telling us that human exposure to PFAS is more widespread than anyone thought. Due to its prolific use and presence in everyday objects and because of its longevity, PFAS have been found in people’s blood, in animals and the environment, and also in a variety of food products at low levels.

While more research is needed, the primary concern is that exposure to PFAS can affect our immune systems, with the US-based Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry expressing, ‘There is evidence from human and animal studies that PFAS exposure may reduce antibody responses to vaccines.’ There is also growing debate about possible carcinogenicity and affects to the human reproductive system.

So, should we be worried?

Scientists are ramping up their research. The United States Environmental Protection Agency has concerns that ‘exposure to high levels of certain PFAS may lead to adverse health outcomes. However, research is still ongoing to determine how different levels of exposure to different PFAS can lead to a variety of health effects.’

In New Zealand there are mixed messages on the subject. The Government’s official stance in November 2021 via the Ministry for the Environment website is: ‘Based on current information, the advice of health officials is that PFAS chemicals pose no acute health risks. In specific instances, more detailed local advice may be required.’

However, the Ministry for Primary Industries website states that, ‘Foods exposed to PFAS are a potential health risk. In recent years, New Zealanders have demanded to know more about what goes into our food.

‘Foods exposed to PFAS can be a potential health risk if eaten consistently over time. Potential health effects are still being studied, but high exposure could have negative health effects such as: changes in liver, thyroid, and pancreatic function and changes to hormone levels.’

Clearly the PFAS debate is raging, but there’s more hard work to be done. Environmental agencies are concerned that food packaging is playing its part in exacerbating the problem and completing a damaging pattern.

If food packaging goes to landfill and is destroyed, but large quantities of PFAS have been found in compost and soil, will PFAS find their way back into the land and affect crops?

In 2021 research led by Massey University found ‘surprising levels’ of PFAS in dolphins and various studies have shown that PFAS can travel in air, thus reaching the ground and water, beginning the cycle all over again.

What isn’t up for debate is the existence of significant levels of PFAS in food. Due to PFAS’ moisture and grease repelling properties, it is commonly used around the world to line burger wrappers and microwave popcorn bags, pizza boxes, food trays and various other disposable takeaway packaging including bakery bags.

A 2021 coalition report by eight non-profit organisations in Europe found that 32 out of the 42 items had been intentionally treated with PFAS chemicals among popular fast food chains and takeaway restaurants across the continent, with “leaching” being the most common method of transference – heat and grease appears to help the chemicals migrate into food according to US research.

The concern for us at Berica is that with more than 9,000 known PFAS, common testing methods have only identified around 25. This means we’re only just getting used to understanding how widespread the PFAS problem is.

What can the food packaging industry do and is any food packaging free from PFAS?

Single-use disposable food packaging and service ware are available without PFAS, including uncoated paper products, and paper products treated with coatings other than PFAS.

Several US states are banning the use of PFAS in fibre-based food packaging, which is an innovative move. The food packaging industry must play its part. 

What is Berica doing?

At Berica we are taking this PFAS issue seriously. Every new development or new product ranges that we are bringing to the market will be PFAS free. We are pleased to report that our new Neverleak range of foodservice containers are PFAS free. The recently sourced new generation paperboard for NZ made food packaging, is also PFAS free.

Right now, we are currently conducting a review of all our products and working with overseas factories that manufacture our products to ensure that any PFAS risk is eliminated.

You may also be interested in reading:

How Eco-Packaging Impacts Sustainability

Sustainable Takeaway Food Containers | 0800 237 422 |

About the author

Veronica Aris

Veronica Aris

Veronica has more than 20 years in senior management roles, leading marketing and sales strategies that include primary care consumables, pharmaceuticals, natural health care supplements, consumer and safety products within B2B and B2C.

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