Better living through chemicals: Weighing risks and benefits in food packaging and beyond

Supermarket produce sectionA headline in the Dec. 12 edition of the Chicago Tribune caught my eye: “Whole Foods made its take-out compostable. But then there’s this cancer-linked chemical. It’s working on it.” As I read the article, the first thing I noticed was the phrase cancer-linked chemical—not a scientifically proven cause. The chemical would be PFAS (polyfluoroalkyl), which the article noted is “drawing greater attention from consumers.”

You know, I was talking to some consumers in Whole Foods just the other day and they mentioned the need to rid the world of polyfluoroalkyls in food packaging. Smart bunch of consumers, I’d say!

It seems as if Whole Foods, in its attempt to be “green” and use compostable food containers (despite the fact that industrial composting facilities in many areas of the country are few and far between) has come up with a worse alternative. Self-styled “watchdog groups Safer Chemicals, Healthy Families and Toxic-Free Future surveyed 78 items from five grocers” and found “high levels of fluorine in five of the 17 items tested at Whole Foods—four of which were take-out containers for its salad and hot food bar,” reported the Tribune.

Thinking that “fluorine” and “polyfluoroalkyls” sounded a lot like “fluoride,” which is a very common substance in many household products including toothpaste, mouthwash and most of the tap water, I did some research. So here it is straight from a PhD’s mouth: “Fluorine in pure form is a highly toxic, reactive, yellowish-green gas. The fluorine anion F, or any of the compounds containing the anion, are termed fluorides.

“When you hear about fluoride in drinking water, it comes from adding a fluorine compound (usually sodium fluoride), sodium fluorosilicate or fluorosilicic acid to drinking water, which dissociates to release the F-ion. Fluorine is an element. Fluoride either refers to the fluorine ion or to a compound that contains the element fluorine,” writes Anne Marie Helmenstine, PhD, in “What Is the Difference Between Fluorine and Fluoride?

I’ve always had the feeling that fluoride in my drinking water didn’t sound like a good idea, but our government in its infinite wisdom has dictated that our water be fluoridated to prevent cavities. I wonder what the unintended consequences of that great idea could be, which is why I don’t drink tap water and haven’t for several decades. (I don’t have any cavities, either!) Personally, I’d rather have it in my compostable take-out container than in my drinking water.

A report from the Center for Environmental Health (Sept. 6, 2018) noted that the government has been very concerned about the toxicity of these chemicals and finally took action in the late 2000s to address per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (aka PFAS), which are used in everyday products such as food packaging, cookware, textiles and carpets. (By the way, I received a press release the same day on the dangers of carpeting with PFAS—I sense a collaborative effort here!) Also noted were “recent reports of widespread contamination of drinking water” with these chemicals. Hmm, since there’s already lots of fluoride in our water, is the contamination coming from the waste generated by producing all these products or from the government dumping fluoride in our water?

Next, I found a report from the FluoroCouncil, the Global Industry Council for Fluoro Technology, about per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFASs) in food packaging. Why are these substance used? According to the FluoroCouncil, “FluoroTechnology or fluorinated chemistries, provide strength, resilience and durability to an array of products in various sectors. FluoroTechnology in food packaging protects the quality and integrity of food, extends shelf life and helps in the hygienic transportation and storage of food.

Comments (0)

Please log in or to post comments.
  • Oldest First
  • Newest First
Loading Comments...