Everything You Need to Know about PFAS in Packaging and Formulas

Have you heard of PFAS or "forever chemicals"? If not, this blog will help you better understand what PFAS are and how your company can manage risk around PFAS through specification management.

Posted on 
July 13, 2023
Isabella Reed
Digital Transformation Consultant
Manage and Eliminate PFAS with Spec Management

In today's vast world of industrial and consumer products lies a group of chemicals called PFAS, or Perfluoroalkyl and Polyfluoroalkyl Substances. You may have also heard them referred to as “forever chemicals.” Although these synthetic compounds have been around since the mid-20th century, in recent years, the rise in concerns related to these harmful compounds has skyrocketed. The persistence of PFAS chemicals in the environment, coupled with potential health risks, has them thrust into the spotlight.

What is PFAS?

As stated before PFAS is the short name for the complex chemical, Per - and Polyflroroalkyl Substances. And if you are no chemist like me you may be asking yourself, what does that even mean?

To give a broad definition PFAS are a family of human-made chemicals that have been widely utilized in various industries and consumer products since the 1940s.

From non-stick cookware and water-resistant fabrics to water and grease-resistant packaging, PFAS have found their way into countless products and industries.

Compared to other chemicals PFAS are unique because of its resistance to heat, water, oil, and stains. But with these unique characteristics come some very harmful side effects for both humans and the environment.

Types of PFAS Compounds

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, or the CDC, since 1999 12 types of PFAS chemicals have been measured in the blood serum of study participants ages 12 and up.

Of these 12 different types 4 were found in nearly every single test participant; PFOS, PFOA, PFHxS (perfluorohexane sulfonic acid), and PFNA (perfluorononanoic acid) - all of which are categorized by their strong chemical structure of carbon-fluorine bonds.

The study of the implications and presence of each of these chemicals is continuing to be studied. To read more check out the CDC website.

Health and Environmental Impacts of PFAS

PFAS are typically referred to as the “forever chemical”, which is no flattering name. The reason is, these compounds are highly resistant to degradation and do not break down easily over time.

As a result of this persistence, once these chemicals are released into the environment, they can remain in the surrounding soil, water, and the living bodies of organisms for years if not decades.

This persistence has been the driving force of rising health and environmental concerns related to these chemicals, especially as levels of PFAS rise.

From food packaging containers and non-stick cookware to cleaning products and stain-resistant fabrics, PFAS have found their way into many elements of people's daily lives. PFAS is also found in the firefighting foam used on military bases and ships, known as aqueous film-forming foam. This rise has led to the discovery of many human health effects.

Potential Health Risks of PFAS Exposure

With a lack of proper degradation processes, as PFAS make their way into the environment, they begin to accumulate in water sources (groundwater and surface water), soil, and wildlife.

And over time this accumulation of chemicals creates a buildup within the source, leading to their movement through food chains, posing risks for entire ecosystems.

Whether it is ingestion of food or drinking water contaminated by PFAS, inhalation of airborne PFA particles, or direct dermal contact with products containing PFAS, these chemicals all pose serious negative health effects, affecting public health.

A study conducted by the National Institute of Health linked high concentrations of PFAS shown through blood testing to a wide range of adverse health impacts- negative effects on immune system function, low levels of thyroid, high cholesterol, liver damage, developmental issues, abnormal birth weights, and an increased risk of certain cancers, to name a few.

What all of these human and animal studies show is that these chemicals are here to stay, and they are going to harm your health. The discussion around PFAS and how to mitigate them and the health problems they cause is becoming more and more popular, which is why it is even more important for companies to see what role PFAS play in the products they produce.

PFAS in Packaging and Products

Across industries, PFAS have been used in various forms of packaging - with a huge presence in food packaging specifically - when you go into your favorite grocery store avoiding PFAS from the products you buy is near impossible.

From pizza boxes and takeout containers to fast food wrappers and microwave popcorn bags, PFAS in packaging is highly popular to help companies ensure that food products don’t leak or have contact with food products.

And more, many companies’ PFAS go beyond just packaging but have made their way into every element of the supply chain.

Regulatory Measures and Guidelines on PFAS

With this being said efforts to mitigate the impacts of PFAS are currently underway. Across nations and industries, regulatory actions have led to the regulatory measures and guidelines related to PFAS.

In the United States, organizations such as the Environmental Protection Agency, or the EPA have played a significant role in regulating PFAS.

Just recently in March of 2023, the organization issued health advisory levels for PFOA and PFOS in drinking water to provide guidelines for public water systems.

And on top of this, standout PFAS were also added to the National Defense Authorization Act which means companies are going to be required to track and collect data on these chemicals.

Additionally, The Food and Drug Administration, or the FDA, continues to actively monitor the presence of PFAS in the food supply, tracking their presence with the goal to phase out and eventually eliminating their presence in the future.

States such as California, New York, and Connecticut, among others, have taken precautions a step further through the strict regulation of PFAS in local drinking water systems.

All of this should be a warning sign to companies that regulations around PFAS are only going to come down harder which is why now is the time to get the DNA level data related to your operations so you can track PFAS.

PFAS in Packaging

Across industries, the use of PFAS in packaging has truly made its mark due to the unique properties they have for certain packaging applications.

From food packaging materials to medical device packaging, PFAS are everywhere.

But with the increased presence of PFAS in so many packaging materials has also come a rise in concerns related to their impact on health.

Packaging Materials That Contain PFAS

When you go into your favorite grocery store escaping the presence of PFAS in food packaging is going to be nearly impossible.

Because of their water and grease-resistant properties, PFAS are used in packaging coatings to ensure that food products don’t leak or have food contact. You may be familiar with this in fast food wrappers (like french fries), microwave popcorn bags, pizza boxes, and takeout containers.

And while historically PFAS have been utilized in these packaging materials, the potential rise in health and environmental concerns related to the chemicals is making people rethink how they interact with these products.

Factors Contributing to PFAS in Packaging

Above all, PFAS are used to enhance the functionality and performance of packaging products and food containers.

With water and grease-resistant properties packaging containing PFAS can have a protective barrier against liquid and oil penetration. For fast food companies specifically, this is a standout feature.

And in the absence of strict guidelines since the discovery of PFAS back in the 1940s, manufacturers have continued to use PFAS because they are both readily available and possess desired characteristics.

Although as awareness grows, industries across the board are going to have to actively seek alternatives to PFAS in their packaging materials, prioritizing consumer safety and sustainability.

PFAS Risks for Businesses

With the desirable properties of PFAS aside, companies should begin to assess the risks of their presence to avoid serious consequences.

A deep dive and evaluation into the presence of PFAS in current business operations should be done to assess the relevance of the chemical for individual companies and create a PFAS strategic roadmap to mitigate their use.

Regulatory Implications of PFAS

It is inevitable that regulatory compliance is going to come down harder in the near future when it comes to PFAS. Especially as awareness related to the risks of PFAS grows.

Regulatory bodies globally are going to increase restrictions and standards - from limits on PFAS content to banning them completely.

This means that businesses using PFAS in their products or processes are going to face the risk of non-compliance and the negative side effects that come with this.

Just last year lawsuits against two of the world's largest and most popular food chains in the world, McDonald’s and Burger King faced serious lawsuits related to their overly high levels of PFAS in their food packaging - and since many more lawsuits have been held.

At the end of the day, the failure to adhere to current and future regulations will have serious consequences from legal to reputational damage and more.

The Rise in Regulations Against PFAS

As research and data support the consequences of PFAS, regulations and legislation related to their presence have increased exponentially.

Across nations and industries, companies are being asked to report and track levels of PFAS in their products and packaging and, more importantly, show how they are working to eliminate these chemicals.

Both the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) have issued monitorization of these chemicals and are furthering the process of eventually phasing PFAS out altogether.

This means that businesses are going to have to be able to track and regulate levels of PFAS in their products and packaging, making access to up-to-date specifications and data that much more valuable. Companies that do not have access to this data will face the consequences of non-compliance and the inability to track progress over time.

Why Companies Should Use a Spec-First Approach to Address PFAS

Restrictions and standards are popping up all around the globe from various regulatory bodies, forcing companies to make quick changes to limit the presence of PFAS.

In order to stay up to date with these constant changes, businesses must be in touch with their specification data. The absence of this data will make identifying ingredients, materials, and product specifications related to PFAS much more difficult.

PFAS Impact on Brand Reputation

In today’s conscious consumer market, consumers are looking for transparency when it comes to PFAS chemicals - they want to know what they are consuming.

Without the appropriate communication of their use, companies utilizing PFAS in their products or packaging may be viewed poorly by consumers.

Companies need to be clear with stakeholders about how and why they are using PFAS, along with the steps they are taking to eliminate them in future operations.

By limiting the use of PFAS and prioritizing consumer well-being, brands can safeguard their reputation and maintain a positive brand image.

Consumer Demand for PFAS-Free Packaging

On top of legal requirements, the awareness of the potential health and environmental risks associated with PFAS is going to get consumers asking companies whether or not they use PFAS.

Businesses that cannot report their PFAS levels or continue to disregard these consumer concerns are going to lose their customer base.

Consumers are going to start looking for PFAS-free packaging, especially in food and beverage products, to reassure them that their health is being prioritized.

Other consumers focused on environmental sustainability may also avoid buying packaged products containing PFAS to eliminate negative impacts on the ecosystem.

And with these consumer demands driving the market, businesses that can respond with PFAS-free packaging options are likely to gain a competitive edge.

Adapting to Changes and Meeting Regulations Head-on

Neogen - a global company striving to protect the world's food supply by providing a comprehensive range of solutions for industries such as food processing, animal health, and agriculture - experienced the complex effects of new PFAS regulations firsthand.

On February 7th, 2023 the Europea Chemicals Agency (ECHA) announced one of the most expansive and contentious PFAS legislation to date.

Unlike other global statements made around PFAS that amain to reduce PFAS over time, the ECHA’s proposal creates almost an entire ban of Per- and Poly-Fluoroalkyl substances across all industries.

With a wide range of customer portfolios, this had a huge impact on Neogen, and the company is still working to locate the products and companies the legislation will affect.

Data points and specifications are scattered, and siloed teams are struggling to determine where PFAS are embedded into products and packaging and at what levels.

Strategies and Best Practices to Reduce PFAS in Packaging and Formulas

For many companies, reducing or eliminating the use of PFAS in products and packaging is a more than difficult task. By implementing some strategies and best practices to reduce their presence, businesses can actively work towards developing innovative solutions and alternatives to create a safer and more sustainable future for all stakeholders involved.

Alternatives to PFAS

A good first step for many companies is to look for alternatives to PFAS by conducting an in-depth review of current packaging materials and formulas. By doing so, companies can identify where PFAS are present and begin to transition to possible alternatives.

Companies can look for materials and coatings that provide similar properties and functions, such as biodegradable or plant-based materials, in an attempt to limit PFAS use.

In order to locate PFAS on companies' supply chains, they are going to first be able to track DNA level data of both products and packaging, which is why having proper specification management tools in place is so important.

Testing and Certification of PFAS Free Packaging

In this pursuit of PFAS-free packaging, testing and certification play an important role in ensuring that packaging is continually improved with stakeholder safety at the forefront.

Based on industry standards, companies should look for proper testing methodologies and certification programs that utilize best practices.

Companies who continually test and comply with the most recent certifications will be able to determine if their products and packaging meet current criteria for PFAS-free standards.

Locating PFAS and Ingredients with Specright

For companies that PFAS regulations affect, having proper tools for Specification Data Management will make locating and eliminating these PFAS much more seamless.

With Specright, teams can use the “where used” feature to select ingredients and view their relation to finished products - in this case the ingredient being PFAS.

Instead of spending countless hours trying to locate the specifications with this function, companies like Neogen would be able to efficiently align their finished goods specifications with regulations by region.

The Power of Data to Track Down PFAS

And beyond just locating this data around PFAS many companies are finding that these specifications cease to exist.

For Hostess, an American-based bakery company, specifications were like a foreign language. In the absence of an adequate tool for Specification Management, the company spent hundreds of thousands in labor, wasted time, and delayed deliveries, all to hunt down PFAS within their packaging raw materials.

With the goal of eliminating PFAS from products and packaging, Hostess had to first locate all their packaging materials that contained PFAS, and then send multiple supplier corrective action requests (SCARs) to their packaging material suppliers, then wait even longer for responses.

Hostess was quick to recognize the inefficiency and pain that this process was causing their team members. As a result, their quality and packaging team began investigating Specright to digitize their specifications, specifically for packaging.

Supplier and Manufacturer Collaboration for PFAS Free Packaging

The reality is your suppliers and manufacturers are likely using PFAS as well. Communicating and collecting data related to their use of PFAS is crucial to finding suppliers and manufacturers who are taking precautions to comply with PFAS regulations.

Collaborating with these stakeholders to ensure they understand your company's levels of commitment to eliminating PFAS is important to confirm their processes align. During this process, transparency is key.

PFAS Auditing and Assessment

And all this considered, PFAS regulations are bound to become more complex in the coming years, so companies' ability to audit and assess the presence of PFAS in their entire supply chains is crucial.

This process will allow businesses to identify sources of PFAS contamination with their supply chains and, in return, take the appropriate actions to minimize their exposure and prevent future contamination.

Auditing will help companies ensure that businesses are not exceeding the prescribed limits of PFAS in their products and operations.

But in order to complete these audits in the first place, companies must be in touch with their specification data. Without accurate and reliable data about ingredients, products, and materials, identifying PFAS will be near impossible.

This is why taking a Spec-First approach to data management is key to eliminating PFAS in your business operations.

Accurately Track and Manage the Presence of PFAS Through Specification Management

Our understanding and knowledge related to PFAS will continue to grow and develop, but what we already know is that PFAS are here to stay and pose some serious consequences for all stakeholders.

Companies should begin taking steps in transitioning to packaging and formulas that are free of PFAS to ensure the safety of their customers and the surrounding environment.

In order to do so, businesses need to get in touch with the specification data (as mentioned earlier) to ensure that they can accurately track and manage the presence of PFAS in their materials and products.

By keeping comprehensive and up-to-date specifications, businesses can identify the use of PFAS in their supply chains, assess the risks associated, and make informed decisions to eliminate them.

Here at Specright, we want companies to be empowered to make informed decisions, especially when it comes to the safety of their consumers.

To learn more about how Specright can help your team manage and eliminate PFAS, request a demo.


Isabella Reed

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