Side of toxic chemicals with those fries?

Advocates seek ban on use of PFAS chemicals in food packaging

MANY OF US enjoy the time-saving benefits of purchasing prepared meals. Ordering takeout also allows Massachusetts residents to support the many restaurants that have been hit hard by the coronavirus pandemic. But ordering takeout food can come with a serious downside: Researchers at Consumer Reports and the Silent Spring Institute have found that as much as 40% of food packaging contains toxic chemicals called PFAS (per- and poly-fluoroalklyl substances).

PFAS are a class of chemicals that resist water, oil, heat, and friction. These chemicals are most often found in things such as nonstick cookware, stain resistant furniture, and firefighting foam. PFAS are often also added to food packaging to keep food from leaking through containers and wrappers. While this all sounds great, multiple studies link PFAS, even in relatively small amounts, to a wide variety of health problems including immunosuppression, low birthweight, liver disease, and testicular and kidney cancer. What’s worse is that research also shows the PFAS in food packaging transfers into food, particularly hot and greasy food.

Scientists believe that food and packaging are likely to be a significant source of human PFAS contamination. For example, another Silent Spring study found that people who ate more restaurant takeout meals had higher levels of PFAS in their blood. Because of this, nine other states have already passed bills banning PFAS in food packaging. These include our neighbors in Maine, Vermont, Connecticut, and New York, plus California, Colorado, Maryland, and Minnesota. A Rhode Island bill banning food packaging with PFAS just passed the Rhode Island Assembly and is on the Governor’s desk.

Food packaging, by its very nature, is used and disposed of quickly, generating an enormous volume of waste. Unfortunately, no matter how food packaging is thrown disposed of, the PFAS in packaging escapes into the environment – seeping into groundwater, contaminating compost, and spewing unknown and potentially hazardous chemicals in the air during incineration. PFAS are persistent “forever chemicals” – on the molecular level, all have carbon atoms bonded to fluorine atoms. This is the strongest bond in organic chemistry, which means that PFAS never break down – once made, they last for hundreds of years. Massachusetts has already spent millions of dollars to clean up drinking water contaminated by PFAS. The longer we wait to act, the more expensive this cleanup will be.

It doesn’t have to be this way – there are plenty of food packaging options without PFAS. Every day that we allow chemical infused food packaging to be used and thrown away, more PFAS flows into our bodies, air, water, and ground.

A report written by the Massachusetts PFAS Interagency Task Force recommends a comprehensive bill to regulate PFAS in the Commonwealth. While I agree that we would be wise to take a broad approach to getting this toxic chemical out of our state, I believe this issue cannot wait for the next legislative term. We must take action immediately to ban PFAS from food packaging. As the recently issued report from the Massachusetts PFAS Interagency Task Force said, “The amount of contamination is vast and the time to act is now.”

As we come close to the end of the state legislative session, let’s take decisive action and ban PFAS in food packaging by passing my bill, An Act relative to chemicals in food packaging (S1494) and Representative Jack Lewis’s An Act to ban the use of PFAS in food packaging (H2348). Nine states, including every state in New England other than Massachusetts and New Hampshire, have already banned PFAS in food packaging. Massachusetts should be next. Our food, after all, should nourish us, not come with a side of toxic chemicals.

This op-ed was written by State Senator Michael Moore; Deirdre Cummings, legislative director at MASSPIRG; Clint Richmond, toxics policy lead at the Massachusetts Sierra Club; and Laura Spark, senior policy advocate for Clean Water Action.