Environmental and health awareness has caused many changes in consumption on a large scale, from replacing leaded gasoline, reducing the consumption of fatty foods or limiting the use of plastics. However, the alternatives are not always innocuous. One of the latter cases may be that of paper straws that are replacing plastic ones. Made with biodegradable elements, they seem like a good solution compared to those used up to now, which could remain in the environment for more than a century. For this reason, the EU banned the use of plastic straws in 2021 along with other disposable products. Now, a study by a group of Belgian researchers suggests that these paper straws may not be as ecological as they seem.
In an article published today in the journal Food Additives and Contaminants, a team led by Thimo Groffen of the University of Antwerp (Belgium) explains how they analyzed 39 brands of paper straws from companies that supply the Belgian market in search of perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS), a group of thousands of synthetic chemical agents that, according to the European Environment Agency, can cause health problems such as liver damage, thyroid disease, obesity, fertility problems and cancer . The analysis shows that 27 of the 39 brands contained some form of PFA.
Groffen and his colleagues’ first conclusion is that this alternative to plastic straws should be questioned. “Although the amounts that we have found are very small, they accumulate over time, both in human tissues and in the environment,” the researcher explains by videoconference. These compounds, discovered by an employee of the DuPont chemical company in 1938, began to be used for their non-stick qualities in pans, in the well-known Teflon, and are practically indestructible. In the environment they can remain intact for centuries and the human body needs up to 15 years to get rid of them. For these reasons, Groffen believes it would be preferable to opt for stainless steel straws or do without these gadgets.
The risk that would be saved by discarding the straws is small, and the study’s lead author acknowledges that a greater amount of PFAS is absorbed through chicken or some vegetables. But any small victory is important in a war against ubiquitous and worrisome substances that is going to be a long one. The case of straws is an example of why. Looking for other materials to create straws does not guarantee that the eternal chemicals will disappear, precisely because they are very resistant and with recycling they jump from one product to another. Although some manufacturers incorporate PFAS so that the straws repel water better and do not soften, for many others the presence of these substances was a surprise. They had reached their products through contaminated raw materials. After more than eight decades of use, in food packaging, cookware or clothing, PFAS are everywhere.
Argelia Castaño, director of the National Center for Environmental Health of the Carlos III Health Institute, asserts that PFAS are very worrying substances, but difficult to eliminate. “The circular economy and recycling, which can have positive aspects, are going to cause us to be exposed to PFAS for a long time, even if there is no intentional use by the industry,” she points out. “This is still the case with many known contaminants since the 1950s, which were removed by the Stockholm Convention, but which have very long half-lives, pass from waste to soils, and we are still exposed to them,” she continues.
Castaño agrees with the authors of the straw study that the use of stainless steel or glass containers is a way to avoid contamination by PFAS and emphasizes the importance of studies to measure in humans, in serum or urine, the effects of regulations to limit the use of these substances. “In studies at the European level, we have seen that two substances that have been banned for years, such as PFOA and PFOS, are seen in less quantity in these analyses”, he indicates. Even so, the study by the team from the University of Antwerp observed that, in paper straws, the most frequent PFAS was precisely PFOA, banned worldwide since 2020.
Despite the known risks of these chemicals, their effects do not seem as dire as those of a viral pandemic, for example. “These products act in the medium and long term, the effects are seen after chronic exposure, but there is an increase in cases of cancer, precocious puberty, hormonal problems, which can be seen at the population level,” says Castaño. After many decades of use, it is now considered that it is best to aspire to eliminate from the environment and from living beings that compound created more than 80 years ago. Even straw by straw.
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