California legislators are preparing to ban PFAS, the "forever chemicals" widely found throughout the environment, in food packaging while also imposing strict rules on advertising and requiring manufacturers to disclose toxic chemicals used in cookware.
The state senate voted voted Friday to pass the Safer Food Packaging and Cookware Act. It goes to Gov. Gavin Newsom for his signature after a concurrence vote in the General Assembly.
PFAS refers to per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, a class that includes thousands of chemicals that have been found in many types of food packaging, including microwave popcorn bags, some fast food wrappers and many compostable containers.
Research has linked these chemicals to serious health risks, including liver damage, birth defects and cancer. They're called "forever chemicals" because they accumulate in the environment and in human bodies.
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) recently found that most foods it tested were free of PFAS, except for canned tuna, protein powder and fish sticks.
Not just food
It's not just food that alarms environmental and public health advocates, however. The chemicals are widely used in packaging, cosmetics and in cookware, among others.
The California Public Interest Research Group (CALPIRG) said the legislative action is long overdue.
“There is no reason why toxic chemicals linked to cancer, hormone disruption, birth defects and other serious health problems should be anywhere near our food,” PIRG official Emily Rogers said in a statement. “And yet, PFAS have been permitted in our food packaging and have been allowed to hide underneath greenwashed labels that leave even the most savvy customers feeling lost and confused. T[he] vote puts us one step closer to putting an end to that, and is a victory for public health.”
Currently, manufacturers are able to claim that products are “PFOA-free” or “toxin-free” if the products lack certain ingredients such as PFOA, a specific type of PFAS, even if they contain other, very similar chemicals, such as other types of PFAS. The bill would ban that practice.
The bill would also require manufacturers to disclose on the packaging for cookware and bakeware products all potentially hazardous, intentionally added chemicals that are present in the final product. Further, manufacturers would be required to provide a link and QR code to connect consumers with more information on these chemicals.
“Parents shouldn’t need to spend their time researching every piece of cookware they buy or wonder whether a takeout container is going to threaten their kids’ health,” CALPIRG state director Jenn Engstrom said.
Still used in cosmetics
The California bill is likely to be beneficial to consumers nationwide, since changes in labeling practices and packaging tend to be applied uniformly by manufacturers. But cosmetics are still a wide open field, both in California and the nation.
A recent study reinforced earlier findings that a wide range of cosmetics contain PFAS.
“Lipstick wearers may inadvertently eat several pounds of lipstick in their lifetimes,” said Graham Peaslee, senior author of the study and professor of physics at the University of Notre Dame. “But unlike food, chemicals in lipstick and other makeup and personal care products are almost entirely unregulated in the U.S. and Canada. As a result, millions of people are unknowingly wearing PFAS and other harmful chemicals on their faces and bodies daily.”
The majority of products with high PFAS levels did not list PFAS on the label, the study found. Products tested included lipstick, eyeliner, mascara, foundation, concealer, lip balm, blush and nail polish and are sold in the United States and Canada.
Legislation pending in Congress would ban PFAS from cosmetics but the measure's fate is uncertain.