Your Takeout May Have Unwanted (and Toxic) Extras

Paper containers seemed like an environmentally friendly choice, but they often contain PFAS, also known as 'forever chemicals'.


A compound known to be a toxic ‘forever chemical’ can commonly be found in paper takeout containers.

Miriam Diamond, professor of Earth sciences at the University of Toronto, led a study where researchers collected 42 paper-based wrappers and bowls from restaurants around Toronto and tested them for human-made perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) — substances that are potentially toxic. Their study was published in Environmental Science and Technology Letters.

There are more than 4,700 individual PFAS compounds. Diamond found traces of PFAS in almost half the food packaging samples. Furthermore, over a quarter of the samples contained high levels of the compounds.

The most abundant compound found in the samples is called 6:2 fluorotelomer alcohol, which is known to be toxic. PFAS are linked to adverse health effects, including increased risk of cancer and thyroid disease, higher cholesterol levels, impaired immune response, and decreased fertility.

Not only are consumers exposed to PFAS when they eat food that has come into contact with the packaging, but PFAS also get into the environment after disposal, and they persist there.

‘Compostable’ moulded paper bowls, often used for food items like salads or burritos, had the highest levels of PFAS; the PFAS levels found in them were three to ten times higher than in paper packaging designed to hold greasy or oily foods, like pastries or burgers. By contrast, paper packaging for dry and other non-oily foods like wraps contained minimal or no PFAS.

These varying levels make sense because PFAS are usually added to paper to make them water- and grease-repellent to help them keep their shape and resist disintegration.

PFAS vary in their toxicities, but they are all resistant to degradation in the body and in the environment. They can move into our water supply and even change into more toxic forms over time.

These findings are particularly problematic because paper takeout packaging is widely considered to be an environmentally friendly option. Composting is an important way to reduce waste in our landfills, but if PFAS are present in our compostable packaging then these compounds will also get into the food we grow.

As policy changes to restrict the production of single-use plastics are coming into effect, this is the time to switch to a better alternative.

Diamond hopes that her study will help accelerate policy to restrict PFAS use. Her group previously found high levels of them in children’s school uniforms, and other researchers have found them in personal care and cosmetic products. They’re not always listed on product labels, but PFAS are often found in items marketed as waterproof or stain-repellent.

“The bottom line is, there’s too much PFAS in the world and not enough restrictions around their use,” said Diamond in a press release.

“We need to get serious about replacing these substances with safer alternatives if we want to protect our health, and our planet’s health.”

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Karyn Ho is a science animator and engineer who thrives at the interface between science, engineering, medicine, and art. She earned her MScBMC (biomedical communications) and PhD (chemical engineering and biomedical engineering) at the University of Toronto. Karyn is passionate about using cutting edge discoveries to create dynamic stories as a way of supporting innovation, collaboration, education, and informed decision making. By translating knowledge into narratives, her vision is to captivate people, spark their curiosity, and motivate them to share what they learned.