Most Paper Straws Contain Forever Chemicals, Study Reveals
In our mad dash to eliminate plastic straws from coffee shops, takeout orders, and our own homes, we appear to have accidentally replaced them with another environmental risk. A new study out of Belgium shows that a majority of paper straws contain poly- and perfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS), a class of over 12,000 chemicals that are otherwise known as “forever chemicals.”
The scientists’ lead was a study conducted by the University of Florida’s Center for Environmental and Human Toxicology in 2021. According to that study, many plant-based straws (a category that includes paper straws but also wraps in corn, sugarcane, avocado pit, and other “natural” solutions) owe their moisture-resistant properties to PFAS. While the five types of plastic straws analyzed within the study did not contain any measurable traces of PFAS, 21 PFAS were found in the paper and other plant-based straws. This led to two disappointing discoveries: Plant-based straws aren’t actually as biodegradable as they’re believed to be, and they’re leaching harmful forever chemicals into people’s bodies and the environment.
In an effort to expand on this research, scientists at the University of Antwerp in Belgium looked for PFAS in 39 different brands of straws. The brands covered straws made from plastic, paper, bamboo, and even glass and stainless steel (which are often used in people’s homes). According to a paper published in the journal Food Additives & Contaminants, 90% of the paper straws tested contained some measurable concentration of the 29 types of PFAS sought. Bamboo straws came in at 80%, while 75% of plastic straws contained PFAS. The researchers expected glass straws not to contain PFAS because they didn’t need a moisture-repellent coating; however, 40% of the glass straw brands tested were found to include forever chemicals. Only stainless steel straws were PFAS-free.
Whether the PFAS found in plant-based straws (and other types) were added intentionally is unclear. As revealed by both the University of Florida’s study and the University of Antwerp’s, some forever chemicals are included in straws with the express purpose of making them more durable. But some PFAS concentrations might be owed to other parts of the manufacturing process. For instance, the most common forever chemical found in the University of Antwerp’s study was perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA), which is associated with a number of health risks and has been banned from global manufacturing since 2020.
“The occurrence of non-intentionally added PFAS could be due to the usage of recycled contaminated paper fibers in the production of new [straws and other food or beverage utensils] or to contamination of source materials or the processing water,” the researchers write. PFAS-contaminated agricultural zones could also be to blame. “Plants grown on contaminated soils can take up PFAS and eventually this pollution can end up in [straws and other utensils] when these plants are used in the production process.”
The PFAS concentrations found by the University of Antwerp are thought to be small enough to pose a negligible risk to human health. But PFAS are called “forever chemicals” for a reason: They accumulate, and as they stack, they pose more of a potential for harm. The good news is that scientists are increasingly finding ways to make PFAS a little less permanent. In the meantime, though, it seems the rewards associated with our ongoing paper-versus-plastic straw debacle are somewhat illusory.