EDF Health

Beyond paper, part 2: PFAS intentionally used to make plastic food packaging

Tom Neltner, Chemicals Policy Director; Maricel Maffini, consultant; and Tom Bruton with Green Science Policy Institute

Since 2002, FDA has authorized the use of four types of per- and polyfluorinated alkyl substances (PFAS) to make plastic food packaging, one as recently as 2016. The PFAS are allowed in plastic at levels up to 2000 parts per million (ppm); although lower than those used to greaseproof paper, these levels still contaminate food. The PFAS are added to facilitate the production of articles such as bottles and wraps. They reportedly improve polymer extrusion, reduce build-up on the injection mold, and improve surface roughness among other technical effects.

EDF submitted a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request for seven food contact substance notices (FCNs) that FDA has authorized. From FDA’s response[1], we learned that these PFAS can contaminate food in contact with the packaging. In one case the overall amount of the PFAS in the diet would be as high as 41 ppb (see pages 31-32 of FOIA response) – much more than is tolerated for some PFAS in drinking water.

These plastic processing aids, along with fluorinated polyethylene, are the latest additions to a growing list of sources of ‘forever chemicals’ in the diet. They join environmental contamination and greaseproofed paper and cardboard as sources that food companies must consider in order to keep PFAS out of their products and respond to consumer demand for safer food. Given the evidence, FDA needs to move forward pursuant to our June 2021 citizens petition to evaluate the safety of PFAS taking into account the cumulative effect of these chemicals in the diet from many sources.

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FDA acts on fluorinated plastic packaging. What are next steps?

Tom Neltner, Chemicals Policy Director and Maricel Maffini, consultant

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) took an important step last week to protect food from PFAS contamination from plastic packaging. On August 5, the agency sent a letter to manufacturers, distributors, and users of fluorinated polyethylene food contact articles reminding them that these articles must be made under specific conditions to comply with existing regulation or otherwise the food contact articles “are not lawful.” Therefore, the food that contacted them should not be permitted for sale. The agency gave three examples of manufacturing processes that do not comply with the regulation. We flagged concerns with fluorinated plastic packaging in a July blog and applaud the agency for this action.

This significant first step needs to be followed:

  1. Investigate the companies that provided fluorinated plastic packaging for food and cosmetic uses to determine whether their products complied with the law. If not, then alert food manufacturers and retailers so they can recall the adulterated food and cosmetics.
  2. Reassess whether the process FDA approved in 1983 for fluorinating polyethylene generates PFAS and whether it should still be considered safe.

Investigate companies that provided fluorinated plastic packaging

In the letter, FDA’s Office of Food Additive Safety (OFAS) states that “available information indicates that some manufacturers of fluorinated polyethylene produce articles via alternative manufacturing methods from that stipulated in FDA’s regulation.” It identified three specific examples and says that “these alternative processes for fluorination of polyethylene are not compliant with 21 CFR § 177.1615, and are not lawful for use in food contact articles.” The three examples of unlawful manufacturing processes are:

  1. “Fluorination of polyethylene for non-food uses may occur during the fabrication or molding of the container.”
  2. “Use of fluorine gas in combination with other inert diluents such as carbon dioxide, helium, or argon.”
  3. Incorporation of oxygen into the fluorinating mixture to modify the properties of the final container.

A market search shows several brands that have in-mold fluorination of high-density polyethylene (HDPE), (here and here) and another that may use oxygen or other gases in combination with fluorine.

With the letter public, FDA’s Office of Regulatory Affairs (ORA), which handles field inspections and sampling for the agency, should ensure compliance by food manufacturers all along the supply chain. Where it finds a violation, it would manage the recall of the adulterated food.

Reassess whether the allowed use generates PFAS and should still be considered safe

About a week before FDA sent out the letter, the agency responded to our May 2021 FOIA request for the documentation that resulted in its 1983 approval of fluorinated polyethylene packaging at 21 CFR § 177.1615. The approval came in response to a 1979 food additive petition by Union Carbide.

As with most of FDA’s FOIA responses, the 233-page document has extensive redactions of health and safety information. However, two things come through clearly:

  1. Nitrogen and fluorine only: In its petition and communications with FDA, Union Carbide was inconsistent when it explained whether nitrogen was only an example of an acceptable inert gas. FDA scientists demanded clarity and the company agreed that only nitrogen would be allowed. In its recent letter, FDA reminds companies that only this condition is approved.
  2. Fluorinated organics: The petition included studies of the chemicals that migrated into a simulated food such as water or alcohol. The study evaluated the residue that remained after the food simulant was evaporated off. Union Carbide maintained that fluorine in the residue was almost entirely ionic fluorine – the kind added to toothpaste – and showed that the exposure was within tolerated levels. FDA scientists kept pushing back explaining that there was evidence the residue contained substances with a carbon-fluorine bond – a indicator of what we now refer to as PFAS. FDA finally relented, stating that “our general conclusion is that low molecular weight fluorocarbon-oxygen compounds should not be present in significant quantities.” (see page 195 of FOIA response).

We now know that levels of PFAS that were considered insignificant by FDA in the 1980s pose significant risks as evidenced by some of the agency’s recent actions. For those reasons, we reaffirm our call in our July 2021 blog and in the June 2021 citizens petition submitted by 11 organizations to FDA to reassess the safety of PFAS uses, including fluorinated polyethylene.

As part of that reassessment, FDA needs to revisit the concerns raised by the agency scientists in 1983 in light of the risks posed by PFAS. Specifically:

  • Nitrogen: In its August 5 letter, FDA states that a form of PFAS known as perfluoroalkyl carboxylic acids “can form when the fluorination of HDPE occurs in the presence of oxygen or water, but not in the presence of nitrogen.” However, the agency does not acknowledge that commercially available nitrogen contains contaminants like oxygen. Food-grade nitrogen can have as much as 10,000 parts per million (ppm) of oxygen and 55 ppm of water. These levels could well be sufficient to generate significant amounts of PFAS.
  • PFAS leaching into food: Since the amount of PFAS in food considered “significant” is dramatically lower than in 1983 when FDA made its decision, the agency needs to evaluate whether it is practical – even with the purest nitrogen – to fluorinate plastic without making PFAS.

If the agency determines that the fluorine gas treatment process creates any PFAS, the law explicitly requires that FDA evaluate safety after taking into account the cumulative effects of related substances in the diet that have related health impacts. As with virtually all of its decisions, the agency failed to do that for its 1983 approval. Given the pervasive presence of PFAS in the environment and the additional PFAS FDA authorized for use in food packaging, this type of review is even more important.

Conclusion

In summary, FDA’s August 5, 2021 letter is an important step in the effort to protect consumers from PFAS in food. Now the agency needs to investigate the companies that provided fluorinated plastic packaging for food and cosmetic uses to determine whether the products complied with the law and take action. It must also reassess the safety of the packaging even if it complies with the specific conditions in its 1983 approval.

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Beyond paper: PFAS linked to common plastic packaging used for food, cosmetics, and much more

Tom Neltner, Chemicals Policy Director, Maricel Maffini, consultant, and Tom Bruton with Green Science Policy Institute. 

Update August 11, 21 – Added FDA’s Response to FOIA.

Results from an Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) investigation into PFAS-contaminated pesticides have much broader, concerning implications for food, cosmetics, shampoos, household cleaning products, and other consumer products, as well as recycling. This investigation, first announced earlier this year, found that fluorinated high-density polyethylene (HDPE) containers used for pesticide storage contained a mix of short and long-chain per- and polyfluorinated alkyl substances (PFAS), including PFOA, that leached into the product. From what EPA can tell, the PFAS were not intentionally added to the HDPE containers but are hypothesized to have been produced when fluorine gas was applied to the plastic.

Since EPA released its investigation, we have learned the disturbing fact that the fluorination of plastic is commonly used to treat hundreds of millions of polyethylene and polypropylene containers each year ranging from packaged food and consumer products that individuals buy to larger containers used by retailers such as restaurants to even larger drums used by manufacturers to store and transport fluids.

The process of polyethylene fluorination was approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) in 1983 for food packaging to reduce oxygen and moisture migration through the plastic that would cause foods to spoil. The fluorination process forms a barrier on the plastic’s surface and it also strengthens the packaging.

Fluorination of plastic leading to the inadvertent creation of PFAS may be another reason these ‘forever chemicals’ show up in many unexpected places. This significant source of PFAS contamination needs to be addressed. Much remains to be resolved as FDA and EPA actively investigate this new source of PFAS; however, preventive steps need to be taken quickly, especially since other PFAS-free barrier materials are available as alternatives.

Growing evidence links PFAS to a wide range of serious health effects – from developmental problems to cancer.

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The Chemical Industry Hid Evidence of Harm from PFAS: 3 Takeaways

Tom Neltner, J.D., Chemicals Policy Director and Maricel Maffini, Ph.D., Consultant

Yesterday, The Guardian published a powerful story by reporter Tom Perkins detailing how chemical manufacturers hid evidence of dangerous health impacts from certain types of PFAS and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) did not take sufficient and swift action to protect the public.

The story is largely based on data revealed in the FDA’s response to a Freedom of Information Act request by EDF and Environmental Working Group. The analysis showed that two major PFAS manufacturers, Daikin and DuPont, withheld safety information from the agency both by 1) not submitting it when the agency was considering whether the chemical should be on the market, and 2) not alerting the FDA when later analysis revealed a problem.

The companies’ failures are disturbing. What FDA did (or, more precisely, failed to do) after finding out is also disconcerting. While the agency’s scientists have taken strides to more fully understand the harm posed by PFAS, management has failed to adequately translate the science into timely action to protect people from toxic chemicals like these in their food.

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Two chemicals that remind us why we should exercise caution with the oil industry’s wastewater

Cloelle Danforth, Scientist. 

This post originally appeared on the EDF Energy Exchange blog.

Over the past few years, we’ve written a lot about the wastewater generated from oil and gas production — specifically, how little is known about what’s in it and the potential risks of exposure.

But as states try to set standards for how to safely treat and dispose of this waste, there are two chemicals in particular that deserve to be among the regulatory priorities.

The first is a class of synthetic chemicals known as per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances — PFAS for short. Members of this class, often referred to as “forever chemicals” because they are highly persistent in the environment, are known to cause adverse health impacts in humans. This can include a range of symptoms, including damage to the immune system, low infant birth weights and cancer.

The second chemical is 1,4-dioxane. Short-term exposure to this carcinogen can cause immediate health impacts, like eye, nose and throat irritation and impaired lung function. Prolonged exposure can lead to liver and kidney damage, as well as cancer.

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FDA takes an important step by phasing out paper greaseproofing agents containing a specific PFAS

Tom Neltner, J.D.Chemicals Policy Director and Maricel Maffini, Ph.D., Consultant

Last week, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) announced the phase-out of per- and polyfluorinated alkyl substances (PFAS) used to greaseproof paper and paperboard food packaging made from a specific type of short-chain PFAS known as 6:2 fluorotelomer alcohol (6:2 FTOH).  The action, narrow as it is, is welcome news for efforts to protect public health and the environment from the risks posed by short chain PFAS, known as “forever chemicals” because they do not degrade.

FDA secured voluntary agreements with three companies, Archroma, Asahi Glass, and Daikin, to phase-out products based on 6:2 FTOH. A fourth company, Chemours, asked FDA to suspend the agency’s approvals on its products containing the PFAS one year ago. The action affects 15 food contact substance notifications (FCN) approved by the agency between 2006 and 2016. It does not address 13 FCNs for similar greaseproofing uses made from PFAS other than 6:2 FTOH. And, under the agreement, consumers may still find 6:2 FTOH-laden, carry-out containers until June 2025.

The process FDA took, and the time it took to get there, reveals the significant difficulties the agency has in reversing past actions in the face of mounting evidence of a chemical’s risk:

  • FDA must seek out information because companies have no obligation to affirmatively notify the agency of new studies showing potential problems;
  • When FDA finds the information and identifies potential safety concerns, it appears to act as if it has the burden of proving the use is no longer safe; and
  • FDA continued approving uses of 6:2 FTOH even after it identified problematic data gaps.

These difficulties reinforce the need for actions being taken by states such as Washington, Maine, New York, and California, by Congress, and by retailers to reduce uses of PFAS in their products. When it comes to food packaging, PFAS are dinosaurs and their time is running out.

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