‘McDonald’s bans toxic PFAS chemicals globally from their packaging.’
The news this week that McDonald’s is set to eliminate toxic PFAS packaging from 2025 was significant, and signalled to the market that toxic chemicals have no place in the human food chain. How long McDonald’s knew that their products contained these toxic chemicals will likely be an argument for legal firms.
Over the next few years, as you go for your Happy Meal, you can be reassured that the company providing them is taking steps to remove PFAS chemicals.
What is more alarming is the knowledge that packaging of food products in many UK supermarkets also contains PFAS chemicals. The environmental group FIDRA recently conducted research that “identified packaging containing significant levels of PFAS chemicals in 8 of the 9 major UK supermarkets tested”. This is in line with findings from the US, where the presence of harmful chemicals in packaging is more visible.
Many people in the UK are unaware of the threat posed by synthetic, manufactured and toxic PFAS chemicals – until recently, these threats have largely been reported in the US, despite efforts from the UK media to alert us.
What are PFAS chemicals?
“PFAS (Per or poly-fluorinated alkyl substances) are a group of over 4,700 industrial chemicals, many of which are linked to major environmental and human health concerns. PFAS are used in a wide range of consumer products from food packaging to stain-resistant textiles, non-stick cookware and cleaning products, and are now widely reported in drinking water, wildlife and human blood serum. PFAS are persistent and are often referred to as forever chemicals”.
The harm: Dark Waters
The dangers of PFAS chemicals and individual chemicals within that family reached a wider audience through Robert Bilott’s memoir ‘Exposure’, 2019 and the film Dark Waters, which charted the class action lawsuit against Dupont Chemical company. Blood samples were collected from 70,000 people whose drinking water had been contaminated with PFOA (a member of the PFAS family).
The results from these blood samples proved links between PFOA exposure and six specific conditions, which included:
- high cholesterol
- ulcerative colitis
- thyroid disease
- testicular cancer
- kidney cancer
- pregnancy-induced hypertension.
“PFAS are in our blood. More than 99% of Americans have been found to have PFOS and PFOA (two well known, harmful forms of PFAS) in their blood, and the numbers are thought to be similar all over the world. We are exposed to PFAS every day, from many different sources, everything from drinking water and food packaging, to the dust in our own homes”.
Some uses of PFAS chemicals have been banned in the UK, but as PFAS is a family of over 4,700 chemicals, each chemical has to be regulated individually, once the dangers have been identified. There are no ‘regrettable substitutions’, which in some cases is simply a shortening of the carbon chain and then a re-branding exercise, as in the case of GenX.
Simply banning the use of a PFAS chemical does not solve the issue, as many PFAS chemicals have long half-lives. “Once in the environment, PFAS can move, spread and cause damage for thousands of years”.
PFAS/ PFOS/PFOA pollution
The UK needs to monitor and regulate the use and impact of PFAS chemicals – in packaging and in UK drinking waters and rivers, where it could be the “ticking time bomb”. In August 2020, alarmed by my own research, I contacted Yorkshire Water asking about the presence and monitoring of PFOS chemicals. Their response was far from reassuring:
“Yorkshire Water, along with all other Water Companies in England and Wales, are obliged to undertake monitoring of the drinking water they supply to customers, in line with the requirements stipulated in The Water Supply (Water Quality) Regulations 2016 (as amended). This is a legal document issued by the Government and regulated by the Drinking Water Inspectorate. In this document there are no specified regulatory limits (PCV’s), for PFOS or PFAS. This means that Yorkshire Water are not legally required to monitor for these compounds and subsequently are not required to report results for these compounds to the Drinking Water Inspectorate”.
Clearly aware that there were harmful dangers associated with PFOS, Yorkshire Water, like all the water companies I contacted, was hiding behind a ‘regulatory shield’.
You may remember the shock to the UK public when, in September 2020, we learned that “All of the rivers, lakes and streams in England are polluted, says the Environment Agency … The most problematic pollutants are chemical sewage discharge, farming, and industrial chemicals”.
This seemingly overnight failure owed significantly to “the changes to the [Water Framework Directive] by the European Commission, including the addition of 12 new substances for assessments – six of which are designated as priority hazardous substances”. The chemicals come from a diverse range of sources, including pesticides from farms, surface water run-off from the highways network, pharmaceuticals, and household products such as those used in DIY and gardening, toiletries, waterproof clothing, non-stick coatings.
River quality is being impacted by chemical pollution, drinking water is not being regulated by water companies, and PFAS chemicals are being found in food packaging and UK supermarkets. And this is the UK, when we were supposed to be held to higher European standards on pollution – causing concern that 2021 may see environmental standards slip even lower, as a result of the UK leaving the little protection that was offered by the EU.
Pollution of the UK environment wasn’t the only concern though. There were also warnings, reported in the Guardian in November 2020, that the presence of PFAS chemicals might hinder the efficacy of Covid 19 vaccinations.
In 2019, the UK Environment Agency warned, “PFOS [belonging to the PFAS group] is extremely persistent, toxic and bioaccumulates through the food chain”. And “PFOS is frequently detected in surface waters across England. Concentrations of PFOS in water vary, but are typically reported at levels above a freshwater annual average (AA) EQS, a value that has been calculated from the biota EQS”.
The Environment Agency also made the point that “Exposure to PFOS can cause significant health problems in birds, mammals and humans – ranging from changes in organ and/or body weights, cancer, and developmental abnormalities to death” and that, as of January 2021, there is no regulatory set limit for the harmful amounts of PFAS and PFOS chemicals in the UK. What we do have is the registration, evaluation, authorisation and restriction of chemicals (REACH), created in 2006 as a European Union regulation to regulate the production and use of chemical substances.
How this will enforced now that Britain has left the EU remains to be seen. It is thought that the UK chemicals strategy will be vital here, but their conclusions have already been pushed back until 2022.
Julian Smith, the MP for Skipton and Ripon, commented that “At the end of the Transition Period the UK will put in place its own domestic chemicals regulatory framework and existing restrictions under REACH which will be brought into UK law … The government are working to improve the understanding of the emissions and risks of PFAS in the UK, and how these chemicals are managed will be considered in the forthcoming Chemicals Strategy”.
The UK is also a party to the Stockholm Convention, which has agreed restrictions on the use of certain PFAS.
As always, it’s important to contact MPs and representatives. Ask them to ensure we create strong regulations and restrictions that are at least the same as the US standard of 70 parts per trillion and to create PFAS group based chemical legislation. After all, the EU has already banned non-essential use of PFAS, so with pressure on MPs, the possibility exists that the UK can follow soon.
Individuals have power. Boycotting companies that continue to use PFAS chemicals will hurt their profit margin, and when this happens, companies change their behaviour. I, for one, would much rather give my money to a company that is not using a product that is harming me. And consumers can also put pressure on retailers for a commitment to phase out all PFAS use.
After all, the change by McDonald’s followed the Mind the Store campaign after test results indicated the use of PFAS in packaging for the widely sold Big Mac.
Finally, we can protect ourselves, by using ‘do-it-at-home-tests’ on products that come into our homes.
As FIDRA’s project lead, Dr Kerry Dinsmore, says:
“We have an opportunity right now for the UK to take a leading role in chemical management, setting a global standard in public health and environmental protection for others to follow. With industry already taking action on PFAS-use in food packaging, now is the time to support and build on this momentum with clear policy.”