A group of researchers in Belgium reported this finding in a study published in Food Additives and Contaminants. The study authors from the University of Antwerp (UAntwerp) tested dozens of straws from supermarkets, retail stores and fast-food restaurants in the country. Of the 39 straws made of paper, bamboo, glass, stainless steel and plastic, 27 reportedly contained per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) – albeit in low concentrations.
Eighteen out of the 20 paper straw brands tested contained PFAS, alongside four out of five bamboo straws. Three out of four plastic straws and two out of five glass straws tested positive for forever chemicals. Meanwhile, all five stainless steel straws were devoid of PFAS.
PFAS pertains to a family of synthetic chemicals used in consumer products due to their ability to resist stains, grease and water. They are frequently detected in food wrappers, cosmetics, carpets, furniture and textiles such as raincoats or workout clothes. The "forever chemicals" moniker comes from the fact that they linger almost permanently in air, water and soil.
Study author and UAntwerp environmental scientist Thimo Groffen said it remains unclear whether drinking straw manufacturers are intentionally adding PFAS as a waterproof coating. He also put forward the possibility of forever chemicals accidentally winding in paper straws during the production process. Moreover, there is also the possibility of contamination due to plants being grown in soil tainted with forever chemicals.
"This is just one very small source of additional exposure which could be easily avoided, but I don't expect straws themselves to be very harmful," said Groffen. "[However, if] it all adds up together with other exposure routes, the combination could cause health effects."
Previous research in the U.S. has also detected PFAS in paper and other plant-based straws. Exposure to these forever chemicals is linked to low birth weight, high cholesterol, thyroid disease and an increased risk of kidney and liver cancers.
Some states have banned plastic straws from food establishments in the last five years – including California, Colorado, New York and Oregon. Food chains like Starbucks have phased out these straws in favor of paper versions. (Related: Taiwan jumps on-board the bandwagon to ban straws and other single-use plastics.)
Things are different at the federal level, however. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration allows the use of PFAS in certain food processing equipment as a grease-proofing agent in paper food packing. Meanwhile, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has proposed limits for PFAS in drinking water – but has not yet issued a final rule.
Keith Vorst of Iowa State University (IA State) pointed out that the UAntwerp researchers didn't test whether PFAS leaches from the straws into beverages or whether using a straw necessarily causes someone to ingest the chemicals. However, the director of IA State's Polymer and Food Protection Consortium pointed out that some of the straws examined exceeded the proposed EPA concentrations for water.
The study authors stated: "PFAS were found to be present in almost all types of straws, but primarily in those made from plant-based materials."
Paper and bamboo straws have risen in popularity as alternatives, given that plastic takes a long time to decompose. But the researchers noted that these plant-based straws are not necessarily a more sustainable alternative to plastic straws, "because they can be considered as an additional source of PFAS exposure in humans and the environment."
They instead recommend another alternative: "The most sustainable alternative seems to be stainless-steel straws, which can be reused, do not contain PFAS and can be fully recycled."
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