Chemicals used in food packaging that can lower antibody responses in humans will be phased out starting in 2021. JAMA reported on the FDA announcement that several manufacturing companies have agreed to a voluntary phase-out per- and poly-fluoroalkyl substances (PFAS), which are used to keep fats from soaking into paper and cardboard food packaging.1 These chemicals are immunotoxic to humans and animals, harming the immune system directly.2 Their effects range from a mild reduction in antibody response levels (measured from vaccine administration) all the way up to development of cancer.2 In humans PFAS can also disrupt normal development and hormones and can damage our liver.2 It’s not difficult to see how eliminating exposure to these chemicals could improve the baseline level of health during a public health crisis such as the current pandemic.
PFAS are found in an array of food packaging materials, even in compostable containers—and they’re not fully broken down through the composting process.3 PFAS are also very difficult to remove from the body. PFAS are not efficiently eliminated through sweat, even after sauna use.4 Bile, which is the vehicle for eliminating PFAS, is easily reabsorbed in the digestive tract and returned to the liver.4 Cholestyramine, a drug used to lower cholesterol, binds bile acids and may improve the rate at which they’re eliminated.4 Other substances typically used to bind bile, such as saponins and zeolite, did not significantly aid in the removal.4 Interestingly, we did not discover any studies that looked at using fiber, which also binds bile acids to aid in their removal.
Removal of these substances from food packaging is an important step to improving overall public health. Until they are phased out, we can be conscious of limiting our exposure to these types of substances by avoiding convenience foods and take-out items that might be packed in them. This becomes especially important during a global pandemic, when our antibody responses have become so crucial to personal protection and preventing widespread outbreaks.
What are the key takeaways?
We can learn to think about and question food packaging and consider what it can do to our health. The health impact from food packaging doesn’t hit the news all that often (removing BPA was a big deal some years back), so we may inaccurately view packaging as neutral in our health decisions. Since we know PFAS impact our immune system, we can make it a special point to avoid them more intensely when we are more reliant on our immune responses, such as attending group gatherings, displaying symptoms of an infection, or experiencing a known exposure to an immune provocation. While PFAS phasing out is happening, we can avoid them by consuming less “to-go” meals and use more reusable/washable food containers, rather than disposable ones. We should be aware that “compostable” doesn’t necessarily represent the “green choice” we believed before, and we can continue to pressure the food industry to innovate how they serve and package food to benefit the public health.
- Jaklevic MC. Phasing out potentially hazardous food packaging. 2020;324(11):1026.
- DeWitt JC et al. Exposure to per-fluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl substances leads to immunotoxicity: epidemiological and toxicological evidence. J Expo Sci Environ Epidemiol. 2019;29(2):148-156.
- American Chemical Society. Compostable food containers could release PFAS into environment. ScienceDaily. Retrieved September 24, 2020 from sciencedaily.com/releases/2019/05/190529084838.htm.
- Genuis SJ et al. Human detoxification of perfluorinated compounds. Public Health. 2010;124(7):367-375.