New Study Shows PFAS Chemicals Rapidly Migrate into Products from Fluorinated Plastic Containers
Washington, DC – The Center for Environmental Health (CEH) and Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER) announced results of a new study by University of Notre Dame researchers showing fluorinated high-density polyethylene (HDPE) plastic containers — used for numerous products such as household cleaners, pesticides, personal care products and food — tested positive for PFAS, including the highly toxic perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA), which major manufacturers stopped producing in 2015.
Results showed the PFAS migrated from the fluorinated containers into water, solvents, and food, resulting in a direct route of significant exposure to the hazardous chemicals, which have been linked to several health issues including prostate, kidney and testicular cancers, low birth weight, immunotoxicity and thyroid disease.
The study, published in Environmental Science and Technology Letters, follows studies conducted by the EPA that demonstrated fluorinated containers and their contents contained high levels of PFAS. This research demonstrates the first measurement of PFAS migration from containers into food as well as the effect of temperature on the leaching process.
“Not only did we measure significant concentrations of PFAS in these containers, we can estimate the PFAS that were leaching off creating a direct path of exposure,” said Graham Peaslee, professor of physics in the Department of Physics and Astronomy at Notre Dame and an author of the study.
The study supports CEH and PEER’s lawsuit, filed under the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA) in December 2022 to prevent Inhance Technologies USA of Houston, Texas, from generating toxic PFAS when fluorinating plastic containers, in violation of EPA regulations. Inhance is the principal supplier of post-mold fluorination services in the US.
For the study, Peaslee and graduate student Heather Whitehead tested HDPE containers that were treated with fluorine to impart chemical resistance and improve container performance over long storage periods. The fluorination process can generate numerous PFAS molecules. The Notre Dame experiments were designed to measure migration of the PFAS from the container to water, different foods, and solvents stored in the container.
Analysis of the containers found parts per billion (ppb) levels of several PFAS that had migrated into both solvents and food matrices in as little as one week.
“We measured concentrations of PFOA that significantly exceeded the limit set by the EPA’s 2022 Health Advisory Limits,” said Peaslee. “Now, consider that not only do we know that the chemicals are migrating into the substances stored in them, but that the containers themselves work their way back into the environment through landfills. PFAS doesn’t biodegrade. It doesn’t go away. Once these chemicals are used, they get into the groundwater, they get into our biological systems, and they cause significant health problems.”
Peaslee and Whitehead measured PFAS concentrations in olive oil, ketchup, and mayonnaise that had been in contact with the fluorinated containers for seven days at various temperatures. Based on the amount found in the different food samples, the study estimates enough PFAS could be ingested through food stored in the containers to be a significant risk of exposure.
“This study demonstrates that these PFAS-laden containers present an ongoing danger to workers, consumers, and the environment,” said Sarah Packer, Director of CEH’s Petrochemicals, Plastics & Climate program. “Our lawsuit seeks to compel Inhance, the company that performs most of the fluorination in the U.S., to stop this unsafe practice to protect the health of workers, consumers, communities living near fluorination facilities, and all who encounter these commonly-used containers or the products stored in them.”
“This new research shows the leaching of PFAS from packaging and containers threatens our food supply and exposes all of us to harmful toxic chemicals,” said Tim Whitehouse, PEER’s Executive Director and a former EPA enforcement attorney. “We have acted because EPA has dragged its feet in ensuring that Inhance comes immediately into compliance with the law and stopping TSCA violations that represent a serious and ongoing threat to human health.”