By Sue Chiang, Center for Environmental Health

Ever munched on some microwave popcorn while watching a home movie? Stopped for fast food while on the go? Hosted a backyard BBQ with friends and family? Has your child ever eaten a school served lunch? Or, do you just simply care about the health of San Francisco’s natural environment and all life sharing it?

If your answer to any of these questions is “yes” then you should support San Francisco’s landmark ordinance to ban toxic chemicals in disposable foodware and drastically cut down the amount of plastic waste produced by the City.

For decades, chemicals have been added to microwave popcorn bags, pastry bags, fast food wrappers, plates, bowls, food trays, take-out containers and other food packaging to make them water and grease resistant.

But new research shows that some of these chemicals migrate from the packaging into our food, groundwater, compost, soil, and crops — threatening public health and the environment. This toxic family of “nonstick” fluorinated substances, also known as “per-and polyfluoroalkyl substances,” or PFAS, has been linked to kidney and testicular cancer, elevated cholesterol, decreased fertility, thyroid problems and changes in hormone functioning in adults as well as adverse developmental effects and decreased immune response in children.

On July 24, the Board of Supervisors will vote on whether to make San Francisco the first city in the country to ban PFAS in food packaging, prohibit the use of plastic straws, stirrers and other single-use food packaging (which too often wind up polluting our streets and oceans), strengthen compostability standards, and promote nontoxic reusable packaging in city-sponsored events.

The science is unequivocal. The time for San Francisco to act is now.

A report released in June, which had been suppressed by the Environmental Protection Agency for months due to fears it might cause a “public relations nightmare,” shows PFAS represent a far greater threat to human health than previously admitted. The report recommends that the safety levels for exposure to two well-known PFAS are up to 10 times lower than those set by the EPA, and confirms these chemicals represent a public health crisis for present and future generations.

A recently released report by Center for Environmental Health called “Avoiding Hidden Hazards: A Purchaser’s Guide to Safer Foodware,” identified a wide variety of disposable foodware products containing the same toxic fluorinated chemicals that San Francisco is seeking to ban.

In the face of federal inaction, the suppression of scientific research, and industry capture of federal regulatory agencies, it is imperative that states and localities do what the EPA has refused: put public health first and ban the use of these dangerous chemicals in products that we use and touch every day. 

San Francisco isn’t alone in stepping up to address this growing public health threat. This year, Washington passed the first state law banning food packaging containing PFAS. Rhode Island and Vermont attempted to do the same.

This common-sense ordinance would ignite a city-wide transition towards safe, readily available PFAS-free, sustainable foodware options in schools, restaurants and hospitals. The Board should seize this opportunity to protect our health, soil, crops and groundwater resources while reducing plastic pollution that can linger in the environment for thousands of years.

CEH looks forward to working with The City to implement this ordinance and continuing to put pressure on manufacturers to end the use of these harmful compounds in their products.

Sue Chiang is the Pollution Prevention Director at Center for Environmental Health.