The next time you pick up a paper straw and sip your bubbling soda or some water, you may want to be aware of unintentionally ingesting minuscule portions of harmful synthetic chemicals into your body. Recent studies show that paper straws, once considered safer for both the environment and health, may have higher levels of the forever chemicals (poly-and perfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS)) than plastic straws. Keep reading to know more about PFAS and how to stay protected from PFAS toxicity.
The Advent Of Paper Straws
The world has become more conscious of sustainable and eco-friendly alternatives over time.
More people worry about how their actions affect the environment and choose to pay premium prices on bio-degradable, organic, and reusable products that are biodegradable.
One such change we see everywhere is the preference for paper straws over plastic ones.
Paper is bio-degradable and disintegrates quickly when dumped in landfills.
Conversely, plastic takes 500 and 116 years, respectively, in land and marine environments to degrade.
Many countries like Australia, Brazil, the UK, and Canada have existing single-use plastic straw bans and encourage the use of paper straws in business places.
So, it definitely makes more sense to switch to paper straws.
Recent studies think otherwise, though.
Compared with bamboo, glass, steel, and plastic straws, paper ones had 90% of poly-and perfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) content.
PFAS are synthetic chemicals harmful to living beings and the environment.
What Are Paper Straws Made Of?
Paper straws are generally made of food-grade paper, adhesive, dyes, and liquid-resistant coatings.
Three-ply paper is immersed in an adhesive bath and sent into a wounder machine that winds them into thin cylindrical shapes.
Since paper absorbs water quickly and disintegrates, all paper straws are coated using polyethylene (PE) or acrylic resin.
These coating materials could be toxic, laden with chemicals, and unsafe for people and the environment.
The “Forever Chemicals”
Forever chemicals are named adeptly for their inability to disintegrate.
This group of chemicals doesn’t break down in the bodies of living beings or the environment. They aren’t affected by heat, water, or other chemical agents.
These chemicals have the potential to live forever in the world.
These are found in everyday products like clothes, cosmetics, hair products, plastic kitchenware, and toilet paper.
PFAS are forever chemicals.
What are PFAS?
Poly-and perfluoroalkyl substances are a group of over 15,000 synthetic chemicals used in various production stages of everyday-use products.
PFAS have strong carbon-fluorine bonds that make them harder to break down. Over time, PFAS can leak into water, soil, and air.
Two of the significant sources of PFAS are:
- Perfluorooctanoic Acid (PFOA)
- Perfluorooctane Sulfonate (PFOS)
PFAS In Paper Straws Harmful To Health: A New Study
Taylor & Francis Group, a UK-based publishing company, released an analysis in August 2023.
This study compared the levels of PFAS in thirteen brands of straws available commonly in the country.
Paper straws have always been considered a more eco-friendly alternative to plastic straws.
These are also cheaper to produce, causing them to take over the straw production industry quickly.
However, when the levels of PFAS in different types of straws were analyzed, the researchers found that paper straws had the highest levels of toxic PFAS.
Analysts in Belgium tested 39 brands of straws available in Europe for the presence of PFAS.
Five categories of straws were included in the study - paper, glass, plastic, bamboo, and stainless steel.
The samples were obtained from regular places like supermarkets, fast-food chains, and shops.
All the samples went through two rounds of PFAS testing.
The researchers reported that 69% of all straws (27 out of 39 samples) tested positive for PFAS.
- 90% of the paper straws (18 out of 20 samples) contained PFAS
- 80% of the bamboo straws (4 out of 5 samples) contained PFAS
- 75% of plastic straws (3 out of 4 samples) contained PFAS
- 40% of glass straws (2 out of 5 samples) contained PFAS
- None of the stainless steel straws contained PFAS
The primary type of PFAS found in these samples was PFOA.
PFOA has been banned globally since 2020.
The researchers also reported the presence of water-soluble PFAS like trifluoroacetic acid (TFA) and trifluoromethanesulfonic acid (TFMS) in the straws.
These water-soluble PFAS can quickly leach into the drinks from the straw and get ingested.
Study Conclusion And Limitations
According to these experts, PFAS may make the straws more water-resistant.
However, this isn’t proven yet.
The contamination could also occur from the soil and water used to grow the plant or during manufacturing.
The kind of adhesive used could also contribute to PFAS exposure.
This study points to the fact that the levels of PFAS noticed were low.
Since people use straws only occasionally, the levels may not be enough to cause toxic damage immediately.
However, PFAS doesn’t break down in the body. Minimal levels of ingested PFAS can also lead to excess build-up over time.
There are two limitations to this study.
- They were not able to identify the exact source of contamination.
- The researchers didn’t explore whether these levels of PFAS would leach from the straws to the liquids.
A similar study was published in 2021, analyzing the presence of PFAS in plant-based straws.
Five plastic, 29 paper, and nine other plant-based straws were analyzed.
The study reports that no PFAS were identified in the plastic straws. The paper and plant-based straws, however, tested positive for 21 kinds of PFAS.
Perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA), perfluorobutanoic acid (PFBA), and perfluorohexanoic acid (PFHxA) were the major PFAS identified.
Other Everyday Sources Of “Forever Chemicals”
The following are some other sources of forever chemicals in everyday life.
- Water-resistant textiles
- Wall paint
- Fast food wrappers, candy wrappers, microwave pouches, and baking papers
- Non-stick cookware
- Home cleaning products
- Stain-resistant coating on furniture and upholstery
- Tap water
How To Protect Yourself Against “Forever Chemicals”
According to experts, the average consumer may not be able to stay away from forever chemicals because they are everywhere completely.
However, here are some ways to stay protected.
- Do not use food wraps to cover hot food. If you buy fast food, discard the wrapper or box right away.
- Do not microwave popcorn in the pouch it comes in. Pour the contents into a glass container before microwaving.
- Stay away from stain-resistant or water-resistant cookware. This includes most non-stick pans.
- Avoid plastic storage containers and bags. Glass is much safer.
- In some places, tap water may contain PFAS. Choose filtered or bottled water.
- FDA states that 74% of seafood may contain PFAS. Locally sourced freshwater fish may contain more PFAS than farm-raised fish. While it is healthy to eat seafood, don’t include it in your everyday diet. Moderation is the key.
Safe Alternative To Paper Straws
According to this study, all types of straws except stainless steel pose the risk of having PFAS.
It is best to carry a few stainless steel straws and use them whenever needed. These straws can be reused multiple times and are safer than paper straws.
Another easier option would be to avoid straws altogether.
Summary: Forever Chemicals In Paper Straws
- Paper straws have slowly started replacing plastic straws, assuming that paper is a more eco-friendly and sustainable option.
- A recent study, however, proves otherwise. Paper straws were reported to have higher levels of poly-and perfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) than other straws.
- PFAS are a group of harmful synthetic chemicals that can be toxic to living beings and the environment in large amounts.
- Paper straws could be coated with a water-resistant layer to make them more durable, and this layer could have PFAS.
- PFAS belongs to a group called Forever Chemicals. These Forever Chemicals take forever to be broken down or disintegrate.
- According to this study, 90% of paper, 75% of plastic, and 40% of glass straw samples had PFAS content. Stainless steel straws tested negative for PFAS.
- While found only in small quantities, regular consumption of paper straws may increase the contamination levels of PFAS in human beings and the environment.
- The safer alternative would be to carry stainless steel straws from home or avoid using straws altogether.