A new study shows that paper and bamboo drinking-straws contain PFAS – per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances that are often referred to as “forever chemicals” because they linger almost permanently in air, water and soil – more often than plastic straws do.
This is despite the “eco-friendly” image of those straws that prompted European governments to promote them over plastic variants.
In Belgium, scientists conducted a study of straws from supermarkets, retail outlets and fast-food establishments across the country, which revealed that most contained PFAS.
The study investigated straws that were sourced from retail stores and fast-food establishments and made of various materials . The researchers tested 39 brands of straws made of paper, bamboo, glass, stainless steel and plastic. Of those, 27 were found to contain PFAS,
The research revealed that, out of 20 different brands of paper straws, 18 contained PFAS, with a comparatively lower detection rate in plastic and glass variants.
PFAS were more frequently detected in plant-based materials, such as paper and bamboo.
This goes against the perception that paper straws are environmentally friendly when compared to their plastic counterparts, which have faced bans in Western countries.
The study did not examine whether PFAS leached from the straws into beverages, although they were found to be present in most types of straws, except for those made of stainless steel.
PFAS are added during manufacturing to make materials water-repellent, although they can also already be present early in the supply chain. That is due to the fact that, for example, plants used in production may have been grown in contaminated soil, said Thimo Groffen, one the study’s authors and an environmental scientist at the University of Antwerp.
The presence of PFAS in plant-based straws shows that they are not necessarily biodegradable and that the use of them potentially contributes to human and environmental exposure to these “forever chemicals”, the researchers note.
The study was published on August 24 in the journal Food Additives and Contaminants.
PFAS are a family of synthetic chemicals used in the manufacture of consumer products. They are controversial because they do not break down, can move through soils and contaminate drinking-water sources. They can build up (bioaccumulate) in fish and wildlife, making them potentially toxic to humans, animals and the environment
Studies of laboratory animals given large amounts of PFAS indicate that some may affect growth and development. In addition, these animal studies suggest PFAS may affect reproduction, thyroid function, the immune system and injure the liver. Kidney cancer and testicular cancer are also connected with the chemicals. That may all pose a threat to humans, it is believed.
“This is just one very small source of additional exposure which could be easily avoided, but I don’t expect straws themselves to be very harmful,” Groffen said about the discovery, although he said there are potential dangers. “It all adds up together with other exposure routes and the combination could cause health effects.”
Asked by Brussels Signal about the discovery of PFAS in paper straws, Christopher Snowdon, Head of Lifestyle Economics at the Institute of Economic Affairs, said: “This study did not look at how much, if any, PFAS is ingested by people using paper straws.
“The best argument against paper straws is that they are not consumer-friendly. They soon go soft when they come into contact with liquids and are an inferior replacement for plastic straws.
“Properly disposed of, there is nothing wrong with plastic straws,” he said.
“They certainly do not contain PFAS that could be ingested. Governments that have banned plastic straws should have a rethink,” Snowdon concluded.