True Cellular Formulas Team - August 28, 2023
'Eco-Friendly' Paper Straws
PFAS Chemicals Detected in Paper Straws
In recent years, paper straws have been celebrated as an eco-friendly alternative to their plastic counterparts, aligning with a global move toward sustainability. However, new research suggests that this supposedly "green" choice may have a darker side. A study led by Thimo Groffen, an environmental scientist at the University of Antwerp, reveals that a significant number of paper straws contain harmful PFAS chemicals. This unsettling discovery raises questions about the true environmental and health impacts of products that are marketed as eco-friendly.
The Study on PFAS in Paper Straws
Thimo Groffen and his team at the University of Antwerp delved into the chemical composition of 39 different brands of straws. These straws were made from various materials including paper, bamboo, glass, stainless steel, and plastic. The focus of the study was to test for the presence of poly- and perfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS), commonly known as "forever chemicals" due to their long-lasting nature.
The findings were staggering. Approximately 69% of all the straws tested contained some form of PFAS. When it came to paper straws specifically, a concerning 90% tested positive for these harmful chemicals. The most commonly detected type of PFAS was perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA), a chemical that has been banned globally since 2020.
What are PFAS?
Poly- and perfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) are a group of synthetic chemicals that have been in use since the 1940s. They are found in a wide variety of everyday products, ranging from nonstick cookware to outdoor clothing. One of the characteristics that make these chemicals popular in manufacturing is their resistance to water, heat, and stains.
However, this durability comes with a caveat: PFAS break down very slowly. In fact, they are so persistent that they can remain in the environment—and in human bodies—for thousands of years. This long-lasting nature has led to them being dubbed "forever chemicals," and they have become a significant environmental concern.
Why are PFAS a Health Concern?
The health implications of PFAS exposure are troubling. Although these chemicals are present in minute amounts in various products, their cumulative effect can be significant. One of the most concerning aspects is that PFAS can build up in the human body over time, contributing to an increasing chemical load that has been linked to various health issues. 
Research has shown that exposure to PFAS is associated with a number of health problems. These include a reduced response to vaccines, lower birth weights in infants, thyroid disease, and elevated cholesterol levels. More severe health risks involve liver damage as well as increased rates of kidney and testicular cancer.
While the use of straws might expose individuals to limited amounts of PFAS, it's the potential for these chemicals to accumulate in the body that poses a long-term risk. This slow buildup means that even small, seemingly insignificant exposures can contribute to health problems over time.
Plant-based Straws Are Not Necessarily Better
As bans on single-use plastics gain traction across various countries, plant-based alternatives like paper and bamboo straws have grown in popularity. These are often marketed as biodegradable and, therefore, a better choice for the environment. However, the prevalence of PFAS in these straws suggests a different story.
The study found PFAS in about 80% of bamboo straws tested, nearly matching the 90% found in paper straws. This casts doubt on the biodegradability claims often associated with these products. Researchers speculate that PFAS may be added to these plant-based straws as a waterproof coating, thereby compromising their eco-friendly status.
So, while plant-based straws might appear to be a step in the right direction, the presence of "forever chemicals" indicates that they are not the straightforward solution many had hoped for.
Sustainable (and Healthier) Alternatives to Paper and Plastic Straws
Given the concerning findings about PFAS in paper and other plant-based straws, consumers may be wondering about safer, more sustainable alternatives. The study provides some direction here as well: stainless steel straws were the only type tested in which PFAS were not detected at all.
Glass straws offer another option, with 60% of the brands tested being PFAS-free. They are reusable, easy to clean, and do not contain any harmful chemicals if sourced from reputable brands.
Silicone straws are yet another alternative that offer the benefits of reusability and safety. While they were not part of the study, high-quality food-grade silicone is generally considered to be a safe material that is free from harmful chemicals.
And, of course, there's the option to simply skip the straw altogether. This not only eliminates any risk of PFAS exposure from this source but also reduces waste, aligning with broader environmental goals.
Choosing any of these alternatives over paper or plastic straws can be a step towards a more sustainable and health-conscious lifestyle.
The notion that paper straws are an unambiguously better choice for our health and the planet has been significantly challenged by recent research. While they've been marketed as an eco-friendly alternative to plastic, the high prevalence of PFAS in paper straws, and even in some bamboo straws, raises serious questions about their actual environmental and health impact.
The study serves as a reminder that labels like "eco-friendly" or "sustainable" are not guarantees of a product's safety or its environmental footprint. Consumers must remain vigilant and informed, scrutinizing the products they choose to use.
By being aware and opting for genuinely safer and more sustainable alternatives like stainless steel, glass, or silicone straws—or even better, no straws at all—we can make choices that are aligned with both our health and environmental stewardship.
The path to a truly sustainable and healthy future may be complex, but with accurate information and conscious choices, it's a journey worth taking.
- Boisacq, Pauline, et al. “Assessment of Poly- and Perfluoroalkyl Substances (PFAS) in Commercially Available Drinking Straws Using Targeted and Suspect Screening Approaches.” Food Additives & Contaminants, 2023, pp. 1–12, doi:10.1080/19440049.2023.2240908.
- “Research on Per- and Polyfluoroalkyl Substances (PFAS).” EPA, Environmental Protection Agency, www.epa.gov/chemical-research/research-and-polyfluoroalkyl-substances-pfas. Accessed 27 Aug. 2023.
- “Toxicological Profile for Perfluoroalkyls - Agency for Toxic Substances.” U.S. Deptarment for Health and Human Services, www.atsdr.cdc.gov/ToxProfiles/tp200-p.pdf.