Why it Matters
For decades, chemicals have been added to microwave popcorn bags, pastry bags, fast food wrappers, plates, bowls, food trays, take-out containers, and other food packaging to make them water and grease resistant. But new research shows that some of these chemicals migrate from the packaging into our food, groundwater, compost, soil, and crops — threatening public health and the environment. This toxic family of “nonstick” fluorinated substances, also known as per- or polyfluoroalkyl substances, or PFAS, are endocrine disrupting chemicals (EDCs), and have been linked to kidney and testicular cancer, elevated cholesterol, decreased fertility, thyroid problems, hormone disruption, adverse developmental effects and decreased immune response in children, organ damage, obesity, and more
A government report released in June 2018 confirms that these chemicals represent a public health crisis for present and future generations. No one should be exposed to toxic chemicals in their food, particularly children. In the face of federal inaction, the suppression of scientific research, and industry capture of federal regulatory agencies, it is imperative that states and localities do what the EPA has refused: put public health first and ban the use of these dangerous chemicals in products once and for all.
What We’re Doing
In 2018, CEH released a report – “Avoiding Hidden Hazards: A Purchaser’s Guide to Safer Foodware” – that identified a wide variety of disposable foodware products containing toxic fluorinated chemicals. People can ingest PFAS through the packaged food itself or even drinking water. Because they are used in 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. The report offers commercial and institutional purchasers – such as schools, restaurants, cafeterias, and hospitals – with PFAS-free foodware options and equips them with tools to push manufacturers away from these harmful compounds and towards safer products.
In independent testing by CEH in 2018, we also found fluorinated additives (PFAS) in every microwave popcorn bag tested. There are hundreds of PFAS chemicals, yet there is no publicly available information about which ones are used in microwave popcorn products. In 2008, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) determined that certain PFAS chemicals could migrate out of microwave popcorn bags and contaminate popcorn. A 2007 publication from the EPA tested 17 types of microwave popcorn from eight different brands and detected PFAS in the air from just-heated popcorn bags, suggesting people might also inhale these chemicals when eating microwave popcorn. These findings are particularly alarming for children’s health, as their bodies are still developing, making them more vulnerable to the effects of hormone disruptors.
In response to these findings, CEH released a video featuring Oakland rapper Mystic and a local kindergarten class to educate families about dangerous toxic chemicals in microwave popcorn bags. Filmed at Roses in Concrete Community School in East Oakland, the fun and engaging educational video also includes a supporting fact sheet that teaches families how to make their own safe, toxic-free microwave popcorn.
CEH penned an op-ed in the San Francisco Examiner in support of the city becoming the first in the country to ban PFAS in food packaging, prohibit the use of plastic straws, stirrers, and another single-use food packaging (which it did). And in January of 2019, The Berkeley City Council passed a disposable foodware ordinance that is the most ambitious municipal legislation in the U.S. aimed at reducing the use of single-use foodware.
By transitioning towards safer, readily available PFAS-free, sustainable foodware options in schools, restaurants and hospitals and other institutions, we can protect public health, soil, crops, and groundwater resources while reducing plastic pollution that can linger in the environment for thousands of years. CEH will continue to work with localities to implement similar ordinances as San Francisco, relentlessly pressure manufacturers to end the use of these harmful compounds in their products and push them to offer consumers safe alternatives to single-use containers.
What You Can Do
Here is a tip sheet on how to avoid PFAS in single-use containers. Also to help you find “greener” detergents, look for the Safer Choice logo or other green certifications. By changing our behavior, and making our dollars do the talking through our purchasing power, brands that enact comprehensive, proactive policies to eliminate chemicals of concern from their packaging will not only be rewarded but better positioned both to deal with PFAS now, as well as the next emergent chemical of concern.
CEH Press Release: Rapper, Kindergartners Make Educational Video About Toxic Microwave Popcorn
CEH Report: Avoiding Hidden Hazards: A Purchaser’s Guide to Safer Foodware
CEH Video: How To Make Toxic-Free Popcorn
CEH In the News: It’s time for San Francisco to ban toxic disposable foodware
CEH & CHS In the News: Is Your Popcorn Laced With Hormone-Disrupting Chemicals?
CEH TV Coverage: Testing finds chemical additive in microwave popcorn
CEH Database: Single-Use Foodware Public Database
CEH FactSheet: Fluorinated Additives, Disposable Food, Containers, and Contaminated Food
CEH FactSheet: Polystyrene Foam, Disposable Food Containers, and Contaminated Food
CEH Infographic: Healthier Food Serviceware Choices (PFAS-free)
CEH Webinar: Zero Waste & Better Health: Two Schools on a Journey to More Sustainable, Reusable Food-service Ware
CEH Webinar: Toxic Chemicals in Single-Use Food Service Ware: K-12 Schools’ Efforts Towards More Sustainable Alternatives