PFAS 'forever chemicals' to officially be removed from food packaging, FDA says

Close-up image of the hands of a waiter giving two small brown takeout boxes to a customer in a restaurant
PFAS chemicals will no longer be used in food packaging in the U.S., according to a new announcement from the FDA. (Image credit: Luis Alvarez via Getty Images)

Manufacturers will no longer use harmful "forever chemicals" in food packaging products in the U.S., according to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA).

In a statement released Feb. 28, the agency declared that grease-proofing materials that contain per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) will not be used in new food packaging sold in the U.S. These include PFAS used in fast-food wrappers, microwave popcorn bags, takeout boxes and pet food bags. The FDA's announcement marks the completion of a voluntary phase-out of the materials by U.S. food packaging manufacturers. 

This action will eliminate the "major source of dietary exposure to PFAS," Jim Jones, deputy commissioner for human foods at the FDA, said in an associated statement. Companies told the FDA that it could take up to 18 months to completely exhaust the market supply of these products following their final date of sale. However, most of the affected manufacturers phased out the products faster than they initially predicted, the agency noted. 

"This FDA-led effort represents a positive step forward as we continue to reevaluate chemicals authorized for use with, and in, food," Jones said. "It underscores an important milestone in the protection of U.S. consumers from potentially harmful food-contact chemicals."

Related: Scientists find a simple way to destroy 'forever chemicals' — by beheading them

PFAS are a diverse group of synthetic chemicals that resist water, oil, heat and stains, which is why they've historically been used in a wide variety of products, including food packaging, household cleaners and nonstick cookware. PFAS are super durable chemicals that can take years to break down, hence why they're often called "forever chemicals." 

Once discarded, PFAS can leak into the environment as they slowly break down, accumulating in soil, rivers and lakes, for instance. The chemicals can also enter the body when people consume water or food that's been exposed to the chemicals during production or packaging, or when they breathe in dust tainted with PFAS. They can accumulate in a person's blood and in breast milk

Numerous studies have demonstrated the potential health effects of being exposed to different PFAS. For example, the chemincals have linked to disruptions in the immune system, weight gain and decreased fertility in a mixture of animal and human studies, as well as cell-based research. 

The FDA's February announcement is several years in the making. As an initial step in 2020, the agency announced that it was working with manufacturers to voluntarily phase out the use of certain PFAS in food packaging, such as grease-proofing agents on paper and paperboard products. The goal was to phase out these products within three years. 

The FDA's new announcement marks a "huge win for the public," Graham Peaslee, a professor of physics at the University of Notre Dame who studies PFAS, told The Washington Post.   

"Nobody reads the wrapper of their hamburger to see if it has PFAS or not," Peaslee told the news outlet. "It's going to be a huge win that we don't have to worry about where it ends up," he said. 

Removing PFAS from food packaging is a "great step in the right direction," Dr. Sheela Sathyanarayana, a professor of pediatrics at the University of Washington School of Medicine in Seattle, told CBS News

However, although food packaging is the main way people are exposed to PFAS through their diets, there are also "many sources of PFAS in our environment," Sathyanarayana noted. These include drinking water and meat and dairy products, she said, since livestock and poultry can be exposed to PFAS in a variety of ways during production. 

Again, it could take 18 months for leftover stocks of PFAS-containing food packaging to be removed from the market. In the meantime, "the FDA will continue to conduct research and update our evaluations using the most up-to-date science to ensure that our risk determinations continue to be accurate," Jones said. 

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Emily Cooke
Staff Writer

Emily is a health news writer based in London, United Kingdom. She holds a bachelor's degree in biology from Durham University and a master's degree in clinical and therapeutic neuroscience from Oxford University. She has worked in science communication, medical writing and as a local news reporter while undertaking journalism training. In 2018, she was named one of MHP Communications' 30 journalists to watch under 30. (