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New Study Finds Toxic PFAS Chemicals in Compost

Compost is a sustainable resource, it keeps waste from going into landfills, and it is nutrient dense, meaning it’s great for growing food and reduces dependence on potentially toxic inputs like fertilizers. But a new study finds that the safety of commercial composts that accept takeout containers is threatened by the presence of toxic PFAS chemicals.

Per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) are used in takeout containers for their grease- and water-resistant properties. But with that special chemistry comes a special problem: PFAS are highly persistent, with some PFAS chemicals lasting in the human body for years. Exposure is linked to cancer, liver damage, and immune suppression. In short, these chemicals have no place in the soil used to grow the food we eat!

This new study’s finding did not come as a surprise to Toxic-Free Future. In the past year, we have partnered with Safer Chemicals, Healthy Families in testing food packaging at major U.S. grocery chains. Our 2018 Take Out Toxics study and our 2019 testing of Albertson’s products found PFAS in a concerning number of food packaging products, a number of which were labeled as compostable.

The class of chemicals called “PFAS” is huge: nearly five thousand individual PFAS chemicals are in existence today. A few years ago, the chemical industry phased out a few of these chemicals and replaced them with new PFAS–not solving the problem. These newer PFAS chemicals have similar health concerns and are becoming increasingly widespread. Can you say chemical whack-a-mole?

Sure enough, the study found that the newer generation PFAS chemicals were most prevalent in compost. Even more disturbing is that, according to the study authors, the newer generation PFAS chemicals “tend to be more mobile and have preferential uptake in plants, and thus frequently accumulate in the terrestrial food chain.”

Compost is a sustainable resource that is excellent for growing food. So the fact that PFAS chemicals are found in commercial compost is a big wake-up call. The solution isn’t to shun compost–it’s to get PFAS out! PFAS have no place in products like takeout containers that can contaminate our food, water, and soil.

That is why Toxic-Free Future worked hard last year to pass a first-in-nation law to ban PFAS from use in food packaging in Washington State. The law directs the Department of Ecology to identify safer alternatives to PFAS in packaging by January 2020 and then gives retailers and manufacturers in the state until January 2022 to ensure their packaging is PFAS-free.

Retailers also have a responsibility to their customers to ensure that their products are safe. Retailers should “mind the store” and get out in front of the ban on PFAS in packaging in Washington State by ensuring that their packaging is PFAS-free nationwide. You can join us in asking Albertsons, the second-largest grocery chain in America, to get PFAS off its shelves here.