Beginning on February 1, 2016, a new order by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) took effect banning the use of three grease-resistant chemicals in sandwich wrappers, microwave popcorn bags, pizza boxes, and other food packaging items. These chemical substances have been linked to birth defects and cancer, among other long-term health issues, and according to many environmental health groups, this move has been a long time coming. The campaign to ban the use of these substances was spearheaded by the Environmental Working Group (EWG), and the January 2016 decision was a victory that has been in the making for years.
What Chemicals Are Being Banned?
The three packaging substances prohibited by the FDA are perfluorinated compounds (PFCs). This class of chemicals was used to make 3M’s Scotchgard and DuPont’s Teflon, and after being used in thousands of products, it is thought that PFCs have entered – and polluted – the bloodstream of essentially everyone in the U.S. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has even found that the chemicals contaminated drinking water in 27 states, impacting over 6.5 million Americans.
Unfortunately, the fact that PFCs are harmful is not breaking news. Back in 2005, a former engineer from DuPont revealed that the company was well-aware that its products could be dangerous to human health but continued to use the chemicals in its food packaging. The EPA then stepped in to make voluntary agreements with DuPont and other companies to phase out the use of certain PFCs, but since the EPA has no authority over the use of chemicals in food products – and the FDA had no interest in the matter – food packaging continued to contain these dangerous chemicals.
What Does the Ban Mean for the Future of Chemicals in Food Packaging?
Although the banning of these three chemicals by the FDA is a step in the right direction, it is a relatively small move for a widespread problem. This ban only affects the use of three chemicals that are no longer in production, but it does nothing to regulate the related chemicals that could potentially be hazardous to public health. In fact, over the last decade, the FDA has approved nearly 100 similar compounds for food packaging use, and the EWG found that the agency has failed to pay proper attention to the health consequences that can occur with exposure to these substances. Additionally, public information about the potential dangers associated with these chemicals is virtually non-existent.
Health and environmental agencies are committed to continuing their work to get PFCs and other dangerous chemicals banned from food products for good. The current FDA response came after receiving a petition for a variety of organizations, including the EWG, the Natural Resources Defense Council, Clean Water Action, and the Center for Food Safety, among others, and as more information comes to light about the safety of new PFCs, it can be expected that these agencies will continue to fight for their restriction in food products.