If you have an ACS member number, please enter it here so we can link this account to your membership. (optional)

ACS values your privacy. By submitting your information, you are gaining access to C&EN and subscribing to our weekly newsletter. We use the information you provide to make your reading experience better, and we will never sell your data to third party members.


Persistent Pollutants

Fast-food packaging can emit volatile PFAS

Study suggests polymers with fluorinated side chains degrade into toxic fluorotelomer alcohols

by Britt E. Erickson
March 29, 2023 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 101, Issue 11


A large pile of compostable food containers from fast food retailers
Credit: Shutterstock
Molded fiber bowls, promoted for their compostability, can emit toxic fluorotelomer alcohols and other PFAS into the air, a new study suggests.

Compostable fast-food containers, designed to be more environmentally friendly than single-use plastic ones, can release toxic per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) into the air, according to an analysis of samples from retailers in Toronto (Environ. Sci. Technol. Lett. 2023, DOI: 10.1021/acs.estlett.2c00926). The results suggest that polymers with fluorinated side chains, which are used to make paper-based food packaging grease resistant, break down over time into volatile fluorotelomer alcohols and fluorotelomer methacrylates.

Researchers screened 42 samples—including molded fiber bowls, burger wrappers, and popcorn bags—for total fluorine content. The molded fiber bowls contained the highest levels. Analysis of eight of the samples revealed up to 14 PFAS in each. The most abundant PFAS in all but one of the eight samples were 6:2 fluorotelomer alcohol and 6:2 fluorotelomer methacrylate.

Surprisingly, total PFAS levels dropped by up to 85% after storing the products for two years, says Marta Venier, an environmental chemist at Indiana University and one of the corresponding authors of the work. The researchers attribute the loss to volatilization of fluorotelomer alcohols and other PFAS.

Packaging manufacturers typically don’t reveal what’s in their products, but Venier and her colleagues have some indication that they contain polymeric PFAS with fluorinated side chains. Their work suggests that the polymeric PFAS degrade to fluorotelomer alcohols and other chemicals. “These fluorotelomer alcohols, in turn, can degrade into carboxylic acids, which are toxic as well,” Venier says.

The US Food and Drug Administration raised safety concerns about 6:2 fluorotelomer alcohol in food packaging in 2020, and several manufacturers subsequently phased out the chemical for such applications. Polymeric PFAS have been promoted as safer alternatives because they are more stable, but the study by Venier and colleagues raises questions about that stability.

The researchers are urging regulators to ban all PFAS, including polymeric PFAS, in food packaging. “For Canadians, it’s particularly important because of the legislation passed to limit the use of single-use plastics in Canada,” says Miriam Diamond, an environmental chemist at the University of Toronto and coauthor on the study. “It’s very reasonable to anticipate that there should be greater use of these paper-based materials” because of that legislation, she says.



This article has been sent to the following recipient:

Chemistry matters. Join us to get the news you need.