Help Fidra with a citizen science project testing food packaging

Citizen Science…Help us find Food Packaging which contains PFAS

An interesting experiment for all ages of the family on food packaging

We have had many conversations about packaging over the past year. But concern is growing as food packaging sometimes has a “forever “chemical used in the production.

So what are PFAS? If not interested in the chemistry jump to “How Are People Exposed to PFAS?”
PFAS (Perfluoroalkyl and Polyfluoroalkyl Substances) are a large, complex, and ever-expanding group of manufactured chemicals that are widely used to make various types of everyday products. For example, they keep food from sticking to cookware, make clothes and carpets resistant to stains, and create firefighting foam that is more effective because it excludes oxygen from the combustion source. PFAS are used in industries such as aerospace, automotive, construction, electronics, and military. See more here.

PFAS molecules are made up of a chain of linked carbon and fluorine atoms. Because the carbon-fluorine bond is one of the strongest, these chemicals do not degrade in the environment. In fact, scientists are unable to estimate an environmental half-life for PFAS, which is the amount of time it takes 50% of the chemical to disappear.

Research on two kinds of PFAS forms the basis of our scientific understanding about this group of chemicals. Perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) and perfluorooctane sulfonate (PFOS) were manufactured for the longest time, are the most widespread in the environment, and are the most well-studied. Although these two compounds are no longer made, chemical manufacturers have replaced them with alternative PFAS, such as GenX. GenX is a member of a large group of man-made chemical compounds known as per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS). PFAS are man-made chemicals that do not occur naturally in the environment. These chemicals have broad uses in commercial products such as food packaging, nonstick coatings, and firefighting foam. GenX is synthetic, short-chain organofluorine chemical compounds

PFOA, also known as C8, has 8 carbons. This is the chemical molecular structure

How Are People Exposed to PFAS?
These widespread, manmade chemicals have leached into our soil, air, and water. People are most likely exposed to these chemicals by consuming PFAS-contaminated water or food, using products made with PFAS, or breathing air containing PFAS. More research is needed to fully understand all sources of exposure, and if and how they cause health problems.

Why Be Concerned About PFAS?
Concerns about the public health impact of PFAS have arisen for the following reasons:

Widespread occurrence. Studies find PFAS in the blood and urine of people, and scientists want to know if they cause health problems.
Numerous exposures. PFAS are used in hundreds of products globally, with many opportunities for human exposure.
Growing numbers. More than 4,700 PFAS exist, an increasing number as industry invents new forms of this type of chemical.
Persistent. PFAS remain in the environment for an unknown amount of time and may take years to leave the body.
Bioaccumulation. Different PFAS chemicals may enter the food chain in various ways, gradually accumulating and remaining in a body over time—a process due to more intake than excretion of the chemicals.

See more here.

Potential toxicity of these substances to us and the ecosystems in the long term are yet to be established, but we know they are used in packaging for food especially in processed food containers.

Fidra is an environmental charity based in East Lothian, working to reduce plastic waste and chemical pollution in our seas, on our beaches and in the wider environment. Fidra shines a light on environmental issues, working with the public, industry and governments to deliver solutions which support sustainable societies and healthy ecosystems. They use the best available science to identify and understand environmental issues, developing pragmatic solutions through inclusive dialogue.

Food packaging in the UK sometimes has these “forever chemicals” PFAS, added to make paper or cardboard oil and water resistance. But these chemicals outlive the packaging they are on and are of health and environmental concern. To help FIDRA work out where we might find PFAS and how big the problem is, they are asking for your help.

How you can help the research. Fidra has developed a simple test that indicates the likely presence of PFAS. All you have to do is dip the end of a pencil in some olive oil, and use the pencil to drop the oil onto some paper or card food packaging. Then let them know what happens! Does the oil spread, soak in or form a droplet on the packaging? If it forms a droplet the packaging is likely to contain PFAS. Watch the excellent Fidra video for more details on how to test your food packaging and let Fidra know what you find.This citizen science will be instrumental in pushing for reforms in food packaging.

Let’s find how much, and which products of the local food packaging you test, is free or contains PFAS. Inform Fidra and let me know too, and we can do a mini survey of Arran’s food packaging. This is a suitable test for all ages, an experiment to assist Fidra and the research.

Sally Campbell. August 2020 for