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Paper drinking straws may be harmful and bad for the environment, report says

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Belgian researchers found that 18 out of 20 brands of paper straws contained long-lasting chemicals that can cause damaging health issues.

Photo Credit: Adobe Stock/laurajstudio

“Eco-friendly” paper drinking straws contain long-lasting and potentially toxic chemicals, a new study has concluded.

In the first analysis of its kind in Europe, and only the second in the world, researches in Belgium tested 39 brands of straws for the group of synthetic chemicals known as poly- and perfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS).

PFAS were found in the majority of the straws tested and were most common in those made from paper and bamboo, the study, which was published in the peer-reviewed journal Food Additives and Contaminants, found.

PFAS are used to make everyday products, from outdoor clothing to non-stick pans, resistant to water, heat, and stains. They are, however, potentially harmful to people, wildlife, and the environment – they break down very slowly over time and can persist over thousands of years in the environment, a property that has led to them being known as “forever chemicals.” They’ve also been associated with a number of health problems, including lower response to vaccines, lower birth weight, thyroid disease, increased cholesterol levels, liver damage, kidney cancer and testicular cancer.


“Straws made from plant-based materials, such as paper and bamboo, are often advertised as being more sustainable and eco-friendlier than those made from plastic,” said researcher Dr Thimo Groffen, an environmental scientist at the University of Antwerp, who is involved in this study. “However, the presence of PFAS in these straws means that’s not necessarily true.”

A growing number of countries, including the U.K. and Belgium, have banned sale of single-use plastic products, including drinking straws, and plant-based versions have become popular alternatives. A recent study found PFAS in plant-based drinking straws in the U.S. Dr Groffen and colleagues wanted to find out if the same was true of those on sale in Belgium.

To explore this further, the research team purchased 39 different brands of drinking straw made from five materials – paper, bamboo, glass, stainless steel, and plastic. The straws, which were mainly obtained from shops, supermarkets, and fast-food restaurants, then underwent two rounds of testing for PFAS. The majority of the brands (27 out of 39, or 69 per cent) contained PFAS, with 18 different PFAS detected in total.

The paper straws were most likely to contain PFAS, with the chemicals detected in 18 out of 20 (90 per cent) of the brands tested. PFAS were also detected in 4 out of 5 (80 per cent) brands of bamboo straw, 3 out of 4 (75 per cent) of the plastic straw brands, and 2 out of 5 (40 per cent) brands of glass straw. They were not detected in any of the five types of steel straw tested.

The most commonly found PFAS, perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA), has been banned globally since 2020. Also detected were trifluoroacetic acid (TFA) and trifluoromethanesulfonic acid (TFMS), “ultra-short chain” PFAS which are highly water soluble and so might leach out of straws into drinks.

The PFAS concentrations were low and, bearing in mind that most people tend to only use straws occasionally, pose a limited risk to human health. However, PFAS can remain in the body for many years and concentrations can build up over time.

It isn’t known whether the PFAS were added to the straws by the manufacturers for waterproofing or whether were the result of contamination. Potential sources of contamination include the soil the plant-based materials were grown in, and the water used in the manufacturing process – however, the presence of the chemicals in almost every brand of paper straw means that it’s likely that it was, in some cases, being used as a water-repellent coating, say the researchers. The study’s other limitations include not looking at whether the PFAS would leach out of the straws into liquids.

“Small amounts of PFAS, while not harmful in themselves, can add to the chemical load already present in the body,” Dr Groffen concluded. “The presence of PFAS in paper and bamboo straws shows they are not necessarily biodegradable. We did not detect any PFAS in stainless steel straws, so I would advise consumers to use this type of straw – or just avoid using straws at all.”

Source: Taylor & Francis Group


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