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Persistent Pollutants

New California laws restrict products with PFAS

‘Forever chemicals’ banned in paper food packaging and items for young children

by Cheryl Hogue
October 14, 2021 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 99, Issue 38


Photo shows the bottom of a paper bag printed with the chasing arrows symbol and the sentence, “Please reuse and recycle this bag.”
Credit: Shutterstock
A new California law restricts the use of the chasing arrows symbol and bans the labeling of PFAS-containing products as recyclable.

New laws in California will clamp down on the use of per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) in food packaging, goods marked as compostable, and products for babies and toddlers.

PFAS, dubbed “forever chemicals,” are synthetic molecules that don’t break down in the environment. Exposure to some types of PFAS is linked to cancer, developmental problems, hormone disruption, and interference with vaccine effectiveness.

One of California’s new laws, AB 1200, bans the use of PFAS in paper, paperboard, and other plant-based food packaging as of Jan. 1, 2023. It also requires manufacturers of such packaging to use “the least toxic alternative” when replacing PFAS. California joins Connecticut, Maine, Minnesota, New York, Vermont, and Washington in prohibiting PFAS in food packaging.

AB 1200 also forbids manufacturers of cookware to label their products as free of any particular toxic chemical if the pots or pans contain any substance in the same class of compounds as the toxic chemical. This outlaws a practice by some cookware makers of labeling products as free of toxic perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) although the pans are coated with polytetrafluoroethylene, an essentially inert PFAS.

“I expect other states to follow these precedent-setting policies.”
Sarah Doll, national director of Safer States

Another new law, AB 652, bans the use of PFAS in children’s items such as booster seats, changing pads, infant carriers, nursing pillows, and crib mattresses.

A third, AB 1201, prohibits products containing PFAS from being labeled as compostable.

And under a fourth new law, SB 343, no product that contains PFAS in amounts of 100 ppm or higher can be labeled as recyclable.

SB 343 also prohibits companies from using chasing arrows or other symbols that suggest a bottle, bag, or other material is recyclable unless two conditions are met. One is that the product is collected for recycling in communities that together account for at least 60% of California’s population. The other condition is that the state determines the collected material is routinely sold as feedstock for the manufacture of new products—a benchmark that many plastics don’t meet.

The California legislation “is not perfect,” the largest US trade association of chemical companies, the American Chemistry Council, says in an email. But the group says it is pleased that lawmakers allowed continued use of PFAS “in a wide range of critical products.”

Sarah Doll, national director of the environmental group Safer States, says other jurisdictions are paying attention to California’s new PFAS laws.

“I expect other states to follow these precedent-setting policies,” Doll says in a statement.


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