WBCC has long been concerned about possible environmental links to breast cancer development. We served as a community partner on the national Breast Cancer and the Environment Research Program (BCERP) from 2010-2015 which looked at how environmental factors can affect a woman’s risk over the span of her lifetime, beginning with in-utero exposures. You’ll find a statement on our position about chemicals and breast cancer on our website and a flyer with 12 easy ways to reduce your (and your daughter’s) risk.
When I saw that the Massachusetts Breast Cancer Coalition was hosting a webinar on PFAS in food packaging, I was excited to learn more about this nasty class of chemicals. Presenters were:
- Arlene Blum, PhD, Executive Director of the Green Science Policy Institute
- Laurel Schaider, PhD, research scientist at Silent Spring Institute
- Maricel Maffini, PhD, an independent consultant who works on chemical safety
These experts walked us through what “PFAS” are, where they’re found, why they’re of concern and what is being done about their prevalence in our environment – and our bodies.
WHAT ARE PFAS?
Per- or Poly – Fluorinated Alkyl Substances are a class of chemicals composed of a bond between carbon and fluorine atoms. This bond is very strong and doesn’t break down – giving them the nickname “forever chemicals”. There are currently over 4000 different PFAS on the market. They persist in our water and soil – through the manufacturing process and landfills – and they accumulate in our bodies. We don’t “shed” them quickly the way we do with other chemicals like BPA.
The most common of the PFAS is PFOA. Manufacturers have phased it out of use but have replaced it with products that have a slightly different chemical makeup of fewer carbon atoms. It doesn’t necessarily mean they’re safer and while there’s been some indication that these newer PFAS don’t bio-accumulate in our bodies for as long as PFOA, they still persist in our environment. The lesson here – as we have learned with BPA replacements – is that sometimes the replacement is just as bad, if not worse than, the original chemical.
WHERE ARE THEY FOUND?
Dr. Schaider explained that chemicals that confer grease, oil or water resistance in paper or cardboard packaging have been used since the 1950s. Think about things like “non stick” coatings on your pots and pans, stain and water repellants for fabrics (furniture and clothing), or fire retardants. But PFAS are increasingly used in food packaging. They’re what keeps microwave popcorn from sticking to the inside of the bag. They’re found in fast-food/carry-out wrappings and containers to resist grease. They’re even found in the molded fiber bowls used for carryout – the ones that are maybe brown and labeled “compostable.”
As noted above, these chemicals also make their way, via the production process and leaching from landfills, into drinking water across the country.
WHY ARE WE CONCERNED ABOUT THEM?
The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) regulates food additives in the US. However, there are a couple of concerns right off the bat. One, Dr. Blum pointed out that it’s “unworkable” to assess the potential harms of the tens of thousands of individual chemicals used in consumer products. And, as Dr. Maffini pointed out, the FDA has not estimated the harm from “collective, cumulative exposures” through our diets of all PFAS (and they likely could not). In other words, they may look at individual chemicals to determine safety, but the types of studies needed to evaluate the long term effects of exposure to multiple chemicals together are not, as Dr. Blum said, workable. One compound might be considered safe, but what happens when it’s combined with one or more of the thousands of other chemicals we seem to ingest daily? The effects of all the different combinations, in all of our different bodies, would not be possible to track.
Here’s what we know according to Dr. Blum. PFAS are linked to elevated cholesterol, thyroid disease, some cancers, pre-eclampsia, immune system toxicity (causing a decreased response to vaccines) and altered mammary gland development.
We know, through the work done by the Breast Cancer and the Environment Research Program, that genetic alterations that occur during what are called “Windows of Susceptibility” can put a girl at greater risk for the development of breast cancer later in her life. (Read and find more links on this important topic HERE).
WHAT CAN WE DO?
The first, and most important, thing we can do is to educate ourselves. Several links follow this article if you’d like to take a “deeper dive” into the topic. But at the very least, we can try to avoid products that contain PFAS that may leach into our food.
Next, we can be advocates. For the WBCC, this is where we can contribute to the effort! Safer States is a good resource on state policy initiatives regarding PFAS and other chemicals. In Wisconsin, several bills were introduced in 2019 and January 2020 that would have addressed PFAS standards, monitoring and remediation where needed. They all died, however, some even after having passed out of the relevant committees, when the legislature adjourned April 1 this year without taking any of them up. Advocates could convince legislators to reintroduce these important bills in the next session. You can read more about them on the Safer States page, with links to each piece of legislation.
What else can educated advocates do? Petition retailers, fast food companies and regulatory agencies to make changes.
An example of this is good news: as a result of a petition from public interest groups, the FDA in 2016 banned use of long chain PFAS, and in January of 2019, they committed to reviewing PFAS uses in contact with food.
More good news: Chipotle has announced that they are phasing out the molded fiber packaging they had been using. Taco Bell, Panera Bread, Trader Joe’s and Whole Foods Market are among other chains that have committed to moving away from PFAS. More information on retailers can be found at Mind The Store.
Chemicals are unfortunately ubiquitous in our lives and our environment, despite how hard we try to be safe. But education and advocacy will go a long way towards protecting ourselves and our children’s health. As Dr. Blum recommends, we should ask ourselves:
- Is it necessary?
- Is it worth it?
- Are there safer alternatives?
Have a little time?
Chemicals in takeout packaging
Want a deeper dive?
Green Science Policy Institute
PFAS Exchange (Silent Spring Institute)
Safer Chemicals Healthy Families
Dietary Habits Related to Food Packaging and Population Exposure to PFASs