Denmark has proposed banning harmful man-made chemicals known as PFAS from food packaging by 2020, in what would be the first ban of its kind by a nation.
Perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl (PFAS), also known as “forever chemicals” because of their inability to break down in the environment, would be banned from paper and cardboard used with food, according to a press release from the Danish Ministry of Environment and Food on Monday.
The chemicals are used to make products grease- and water-repellent, though studies have shown that they can have adverse health effects on humans and animals.
“We will [ban them] because I will not accept the risk of these very harmful substances migrating from the packaging to the food. We can see that the substances represent a major health problem and we can no longer wait for the EU,” said Danish Food Minister Mogens Jensen, according to a translation by the Food Packaging Forum.
Studies have shown that PFAS can cause tumors in lab animals and have been linked to low infant birth weights, cancer and thyroid hormone disruption, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
“Both chemicals are very persistent in the environment and in the human body ― meaning they don’t break down and they can accumulate over time,” the EPA says on its website.
Some of the foods and food packaging found to contain PFAS include microwave popcorn, fast-food wrappers, pizza boxes and meats and seafood. People can also be exposed to low levels of PFAS through products that are commercially treated to make them stain- and water-repellent, or nonstick. These items include carpets, leather, plastics, rubber, paper, dental floss and cookware. Water can also become contaminated if sourced from a well or an area that has been contaminated with PFAS.
Although the chemicals don’t break down in the environment, the human body is capable of breaking down about half of the amount ingested within four or five years, David Andrews, a Ph.D. toxicologist and senior scientist at the Environmental Working Group, told HuffPost in June.
“Based on what we know about food, there’s not much a consumer can do to change exposure in any meaningful way,” he said. “At this point, it’s focusing on water and pushing for the [Food and Drug Administration] and the government to do a better job evaluating it.”
Peter Pagh, a professor in environmental law at Copenhagen University, expressed doubt that Denmark’s ban will be a success, telling news site EUobserver that European Union countries cannot ban such imports on their own.
“I find it surprising if the legal advisers to the government are not aware of this ― but, of course, it’s also possible the government is more interested in seeking political goodwill by waging a battle it cannot win,” he said.