Companies have switched from plastic straws to paper straws in an effort to be more environmentally friendly. However, new research suggests that well-intentioned trends may not be the best bet.
The study was published today in Food Additives and Contaminants The journal found that the vast majority of paper straws tested contained synthetic chemicals known as polyfluoroalkyl substances and perfluoroalkyl substances, or PFAS. PFAS are often referred to as “permanent chemicals” that do not break down in the body or the environment.
“Straws made from plant materials such as paper and bamboo are often advertised as more sustainable and environmentally friendly than straws made from plastic,” said study author Dr Thimo Groffen, an environmental scientist at the University of the UK explain. Antwerp said in a press release. “However, the presence of PFAS in these straws means that’s not necessarily true.”
Researchers for the study examined 39 brands of straws in Belgian supermarkets, toy stores, fast food chains, pharmacies and e-commerce stores. The straws were made of paper, bamboo, glass, stainless steel or plastic, and the researchers tested each brand for PFAS concentrations. 69% of brands contained PFAS, with paper straws more likely to contain these chemicals. The researchers found that 90 percent of paper straws contained PFAS, compared with 80 percent for bamboo straws, 75 percent for plastic straws and 40 percent for glass straws. Additionally, the paper straw brand was the one with the highest concentration of PFAS.
Perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) is the most common PFAS in straws. While it is no longer manufactured in the United States, it is reportedly made in some other countries and may appear in products purchased by U.S. consumers. American Cancer Society.
The Risks of Permanent Chemicals
PFAS were first introduced in the 1940s to help products resist oil, water and grease. According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, “forever chemicals” (CDC). While PFAS can enter food through plants, animals and contaminated processing centers, “very small amounts of PFAS may also enter food through food packaging, processing and cookware.” US Food and Drug Administration.
Small amounts of PFAS do not pose a risk. However, accumulation of these chemicals in the body can lead to dangerous health effects due to changes in liver enzymes, increased blood pressure, and certain cancers, according to the CDC (although the long-term effects in humans are still not fully understood, because only animals have been studied with higher concentrations of PFAS). Animal studies have shown that high levels of PFAS in the body may affect growth and development and damage the liver and immune system, the CDC said.
Because of this concern, the FDA has been testing food for PFAS since 2019 to estimate human exposure.
“If the agency finds that levels of PFAS pose a health concern in a particular food, we take action, which may include working with the manufacturer to resolve the issue and taking steps to prevent that product from entering or remaining in the US,” the FDA’s website reads.
The researchers noted that the levels of PFAS detected in straw were generally low, and speculated that contamination of soil during or during the manufacture of plant-based straw (bamboo and paper) may have contributed to the detection of PFAS. It’s also not known whether the chemicals seeped into the liquid itself. Still, it begs the question of whether to use paper straws in the name of sustainability.
“The presence of PFAS in paper straws and bamboo straws indicates that they are not necessarily biodegradable,” Groffin said in the release. “We did not detect any PFAS in stainless steel straws, so I recommend that consumers use these types of straws.” type straws, or avoid straws altogether.”