Denmark will be the first country to ban PFAS chemicals, which have been linked to cancer, elevated cholesterol and decreased fertility, from food packaging, starting next year.
PFAS substances, sometimes called “forever chemicals” because they don’t break down in the environment, are used to repel grease and water in packaging for fatty and moist foods such as burgers and cakes.
“I do not want to accept the risk of harmful fluorinated substances (PFAS) migrating from the packaging and into our food. These substances represent such a health problem that we can no longer wait for the EU,” Denmark’s Food Minister Mogens Jensen said in a statement Monday.
PFAS chemicals are a family of potentially thousands of synthetic chemicals that are extremely persistent in the environment and in our bodies. PFAS is short for perfluoroalky and polyfluoroalkyl substances, and includes chemicals known as PFOS, PFOA and GenX.
They are all identified by signature elemental bonds of fluorine and carbon, which are extremely strong and what make it so difficult for these chemicals to disintegrate in the environment or in our bodies.
Under Denmark’s new regulation, baking paper and microwave popcorn bags, for example, will be required to be manufactured without any PFAS.
“We congratulate Denmark on leading the way for healthier food and hope this will encourage similar action across the EU, the US and worldwide,” said Arlene Blum of the Green Science Policy Institute and the Department of Chemistry at University of California, Berkeley.
“Given the potential for harm, we must ask if the convenience of water and grease resistance is worth risking our health,” Blum said.
PFAS chemicals have been manufactured since the 1940s and can be found in Teflon nonstick products, stains and water repellents, paints, cleaning products, food packaging and firefighting foams.
These chemicals can easily migrate into the air, dust, food, soil and water. People can also be exposed to them through food packaging and industrial exposure.
A growing body of science has found that there are potential adverse health impacts associated with PFAS exposure, including liver damage, thyroid disease, decreased fertility, high cholesterol, obesity, hormone suppression and cancer.
In a statement, the Danish Veterinary and Food Administration said that the substances were very difficult to break down in the environment, and some of them accumulate in humans and animals.
The ban covers the use of PFAS compounds in food contact materials of cardboard and paper. The Danish government said it would continue to be possible to use recycled paper and paper for food packaging, but said PFAS compounds must be separated from the food with a barrier which ensures that they don’t migrate into the food.
PFOS and PFOA are the two most-studied PFAS chemicals and have been identified as contaminants of emerging concern by the US Environmental Protection Agency.
PFOS was voluntarily phased out of production in the United States by 3M, the main manufacturer, starting in 2000. In 2006, PFOA began to be phased out as well. PFOA and PFOS are no longer manufactured or imported in the United States, but similar “replacement chemicals for PFOA and PFOS such as GenX, may be just as persistent,” Susan M. Pinney, a professor in the Department of Environmental Health at the University of Cincinnati, told CNN earlier this year.
The European Food Safety Agency said it is reassessing the risks PFAS pose to human health.