Study looks for toxic chemicals in food packaging

Scientists believe they will find toxic, so-called “forever chemicals” in paper and cardboard food packaging used in Australia.

The study is focused on “greener” packaging options that have filled the void created by bans on single-use plastics.

The newer packaging is often designed to be compostable, meaning it can be broken down on an industrial scale and reused in products like fertiliser that are then put back into the environment.

But that begs the question: what nasties might be present alongside useful organic material like paper and cardboard.

Environmental chemist Sarit Kaserzon, from the University of Queensland, intends to find out and says evidence is emerging that compostable food packaging used overseas contains PFAS chemicals.

PFAS stands for per- and poly-fluoroalkyl substances – a vast family of thousands of toxic, very long-lived chemicals that have been linked to environmental and human health problems.

The chemicals are valued for their heat, water and grease-repelling properties but they don’t readily break down, and can build up in plants, including agricultural crops, in animals and in human bodies.

Many governments worldwide warn certain levels of exposure may lead to increased cancer and other health risks. The Australian government is more cautious but urges a precautionary approach focused on limiting exposure.

Dr Kaserzon says it’s important to establish what is in new-generation packaging given it’s typically designed for reuse.

She says chemical manufacturers don’t always disclose precisely what’s in their products, even to manufacturers who then use them to line food packaging.

It is sometimes refused on the basis it is valuable, proprietary information covered by patents.

There’s also a risk that PFAS could be resulting from unidentified processes that might be occurring during the manufacture of food packaging.

“There are industries that are not doing the right thing,” Dr Kaserzon says.

“But I will say there are a lot of industries that are really wanting to do the right thing.”

The latter include some Australian packaging companies that are partners in Dr Kaserzon’s study, which is being funded by the federal government’s Australian Research Council.

Scientists don’t typically like to say what they expect to find but Dr Kaserzon says overseas studies suggest PFAS will be detected.

“There is a high probability, yes, that we will detect some PFAS.”

Dr Kaserzon hopes the outcomes of her research, whatever they are, fuel greater transparency and better regulation.

“The science of manufacturing is getting well ahead of regulation,” she says.

Preliminary results are expected by the end of this year.


Tracey Ferrier
(Australian Associated Press)


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