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Not so green: Hidden "forever chemicals" found in paper drinking straws 

In a world increasingly alarmed by the environmental implications of single-use plastic products, many have turned to “eco-friendly” alternatives like paper drinking straws. But a recent study from Belgium warns that these seemingly sustainable alternatives may not be as benign as we think. 

The researchers caution users about the hidden contaminants in these seemingly green products. The experts report that “eco-friendly” paper drinking straws, celebrated for their biodegradability, may contain long-lasting and potentially toxic chemicals.

Focus of the study 

Led by Dr. Thimo Groffen, an environmental scientist at the University of Antwerp, this research is the first of its kind in Europe and only the second globally. The team conducted a comprehensive analysis of 39 brands of straws, focusing on the detection of synthetic chemicals known as poly- and perfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS).

PFAS, also known as “forever chemicals,” are renowned for their resistance properties. They are commonly found in products ranging from outdoor apparel to non-stick cookware. 

These forever chemicals resist water, heat, and stains. But this resilience comes with an environmental and health toll. They degrade slowly, persisting in the environment for millennia. 

Not necessarily eco-friendly 

Not only are PFAS detrimental to our planet, but they have also been linked to numerous health complications – ranging from lowered responses to vaccines and thyroid diseases to heightened cholesterol levels and various cancers.

According to Dr. Groffen, “Straws made from plant-based materials, such as paper and bamboo, are often advertised as being more sustainable and eco-friendly than those made from plastic. However, the presence of PFAS in these straws means that’s not necessarily true.”

What the researchers learned 

So how did these straws fare in the study? Out of the 39 brands, an alarming 69% (27 brands) were found to contain PFAS. 

The majority, 90%, were paper straws. Bamboo straws weren’t far behind, with 80% of brands testing positive for PFAS.

These numbers are significant, especially when considering the global clampdown on single-use plastics. Countries like the UK and Belgium have banned such products, thrusting plant-based straws to the forefront.

Cocktail of chemicals 

Furthermore, it’s concerning that the most commonly detected PFAS, perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA), has been globally banned since 2020. 

Adding to the cocktail of chemicals were “ultra-short chain” PFAS such as trifluoroacetic acid (TFA) and trifluoromethanesulfonic acid (TFMS). These are particularly troubling as they have high water solubility, raising concerns about leaching into beverages.

Relatively low concentrations

However, it’s worth noting that the PFAS concentrations in these straws were relatively low. Given the sporadic use of straws by the average person, the immediate health risks might be limited. 

Still yet, as Dr. Groffen points out, “Small amounts of PFAS, while not harmful in themselves, can add to the chemical load already present in the body.”

Origin remains a mystery 

As for the origin of PFAS in these straws, it remains a mystery. Were they intentionally added by manufacturers for water resistance, or did they emerge from environmental contamination? 

The team speculates that in some cases, the chemicals might be applied as water-repellent coatings, given their near-ubiquity in paper straw brands.

Study limitations 

The study did have its limitations. For instance, the experts did not explore whether the PFAS would actually migrate from the straws to the drinks. 

Nevertheless, Dr. Groffen’s concluding advice was clear-cut: “The presence of PFAS in paper and bamboo straws shows they are not necessarily biodegradable. We did not detect any PFAS in stainless steel straws, so I would advise consumers to use this type of straw – or just avoid using straws at all.”

In the quest for sustainable alternatives, it’s crucial to ensure that replacements do not inadvertently introduce new problems. The findings from this study serve as a reminder that even green solutions need rigorous evaluation.

The research is published in the journal Food Additives & Contaminants


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