Paper straws found to contain ‘forever chemicals’
A new study suggests ‘eco-friendly’ paper drinking straws may contain long-lasting chemicals with potentially toxic effects.
Conducted in Belgium and published in the journal ‘Food Additives & Contaminants’, the study found a variety of Poly- and Perfluoroalkyl Substances (PFAS) present in a majority of paper straws and other ‘eco-friendly’ glass and bamboo alternatives.
Plastic straws have been banned in the UK since 2020 and, as a result, many providers have switched to plant and paper-based options.
Researchers tested 39 different brands of drinking straws purchased from a range of Belgian stores, restaurants and online providers for 29 different types of PFAS. A range of paper, glass, bamboo and stainless steel straws were all examined.
PFAS were detected in 18 out of the 20 paper straws tested, four in five bamboo straws, three in four plastic straws and two in five glass straws. No PFAS were found in any of the five tested steel straws.
The results were variable, finding different PFAS in different concentrations between brands. Almost all plant-based straws contained PFAS, with the report noting that it was unclear how many products had PFAS added intentionally for waterproofing, and how many were simply contaminated at their source in the soil or by water during treatment or recycling.
The PFAS most commonly found in paper straws was perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA), which has been banned globally for four years. The study also found trifluoroacetic acid (TFA) in five out of eight paper straws and one bamboo straw, but notes that since the industrial use of TFA is limited, it is likely that the TFA comes either from the breakdown of other chemicals or potentially from contamination, as TFA has been found to leach from landfills.
The study also suggested that the presence of PFAS in glass straws may have been due to contamination of silica mineral feedstocks.
The study concluded that the most sustainable straws seemed to be those made out of stainless steel, which contained no PFAS, can be washed and reused easily and can also be recycled. Any other type of straw is likely to contain some amount of PFAS.
Responding to the study, City to Sea’s Policy Manager, Steve Hynd, said “This study gives another reason why we are right to move away from single-use straws. It also questions whether just simply swapping one single-use material out for another is the best course of action.
“Our suggestion to consumers is to go without a straw altogether or use reusable stainless-steel straws that this study showed did not contain the same chemicals as paper or plastic straws.
“For businesses, we strongly recommend removing straws from bar and countertops and only handing out straws when customers ask for them. Every paper, bamboo or other single-use straw that is handed out might not last in the natural environment like a plastic straw, but it will still hold an avoidable environmental footprint.
“For restaurants and bars where people sit in to enjoy their drinks, customers wanting a straw should be offered a reusable stainless-steel option. It’s time for reusables to become the new norm.”
Impacts of PFAS in paper straws
PFAS are a family of chemical substances used to make fluoropolymer coatings and products that resist heat, oil, grease and water. They have been used in applications as diverse as non-stick cookware, clothing, food packaging, adhesives, wire insulation and fire-fighting foam since as early as the 1950s.
PFAS break down slowly – if at all – under natural conditions, earning them the title ‘forever chemicals'. They are mobile and have been found in soil, water, food and human blood. The chemicals have a tendency to bioaccumulate, building into large concentrations at the top of food chains. Not much is known about the effect of many PFAS on human health, but some, such as PFOA and perfluorooctanesulfonic acid (PFOS), have been found to be toxic in large doses. Both were banned in 2009 and 2019 respectively.
Concentrations of PFAS in each straw were low and likely pose a limited health risk. No study has yet examined whether PFAS from straws are likely to contaminate drinking liquids.
PFAS in the environment can, however, accumulate in humans and wildlife. With the thousands of variations in PFAS chemicals, the effects can be hard to study, but research conducted so far has linked certain PFAS exposures to toxic effects such as altered metabolism, reduced fertility, reduced foetal growth, increased risk of obesity, increased risk of some cancers, a reduction in the effectiveness of the immune system, liver damage, and thyroid damage.