How nanotechnology and microbes can remedy the issue of “endlessly chemical substances” in meals packaging

Disposable food packaging.

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In the past few months, several companies have announced plans to remove chemicals from their food packaging forever. Chemicals can forever accumulate in the human body and cannot be broken down in the environment. Now researchers from the University of Pittsburgh and the University at Buffalo are working to find out how nanotechnology and microbes can help break down these chemicals through a new treatment process.

What are Forever Chemicals?

Forever chemicals are PFAS (per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances) that are used in some food packaging and other products. PFAS chemicals are found in certain board and paper packaging products used for food.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) list of approved uses of PFAS in food contact applications includes microwave popcorn bags, removable containers, and other items. PFAS are used for their non-stick properties and their ability to repel water, oil and grease. The FDA acknowledges that PFAS can potentially migrate from packaging to food. This means that contact can allow the chemicals to get into the foods that a person eats.

The US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) states that PFAS can have harmful effects. They can increase the risk of reproductive, developmental, kidney and liver problems. PFAS can cause several types of cancer, low birth weight in infants, thyroid hormone disorder, and damage to the immune system.

PFAS expires

In 2016, the FDA phased out all long-chain PFAS, which are chemicals with eight or more carbon atoms, from food contact applications in the United States. The decision was made based on research showing that long chain PFAS can be toxic to animals and humans.

Short chain PFAS with seven or fewer carbons replaced the long chain PFAS. However, concerns remain about the safety of short chain PFAS and their impact on human health and the environment.

In 2020, the FDA shared data on a type of short chain PFAS called 6: 2 fluorotelomer alcohol (6: 2 FTOH) and risks to human health. After the data was published, three manufacturers agreed to voluntarily phase out 6: 2 FTOH from 2021. It is important to note that other types of short chain PFAS are also manufactured and sold.

Response from companies

Some companies have decided to eliminate PFAS in their products. Amazon banned the use of chemicals of concern, including PFAS, from its Amazon Kitchen branded products and food packaging. The company encourages other manufacturers to avoid using these types of chemicals, but can only control its own private label products.

McDonald’s also announced that it will remove all PFAS from its packaging by 2025. The company had previously stopped using long chain PFAS, BPA / BPS, phthalates, and other chemicals in its food packaging.

New research offers hope

One of the problems with PFAS chemicals is their ability to persist in the body and in the environment. Forever, chemicals can build up over time and are difficult to destroy. Food packaging containing PFAS contaminates landfills and cannot be used in compost. Researchers at the University of Pittsburgh and the University at Buffalo are working on a solution to reduce PFAS.

Research focuses on the use of nanotechnology and microbes to break down chemicals forever. Nanomaterials can potentially react with PFAS and cut it into smaller pieces so that bacteria can eat the smaller pieces. The aim is to create an effective treatment process to remove PFAS from the environment.

Although the researchers are only studying 15 types of PFAS, their results may have broader uses and applications. They plan to study how PFAS breaks down, how toxic the by-products are, and how powerful the microbes that consume the chemicals are.

An estimated 95% of the US population has PFAS in their blood and there is currently no way to remove it. The University of Pittsburgh and University at Buffalo’s detailed studies of the breakdown of PFAS may provide new information that will help others remove the chemicals from the human body.

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