On July 7, 2021, researchers Tom Neltner, Maricel Maffini, and Tom Bruton, associated with Environmental Defense Fund (EDF) and the Green Science Policy Institute (GSPI) published an investigation into the fluorine-gas treatment of plastics used in food contact and elsewhere. The three found that “fluorination of plastic is commonly used to treat hundreds of millions of polyethylene and polypropylene containers each year.” The US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) released a report in January 2021 that found per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) are likely produced during the plastic fluorination process, and a study from 2011 found even greater PFAS creation from fluorine gas treatment than the EPA.
The amount of fluorine that migrates to food from the containers may translate into “extremely high levels of PFAS exposure for consumers.” The authors provide a possible case study: “consider a one-liter bottle of fluorinated HDPE [high-density polyethylene] where only 1% of the PFAS made from the fluorination process was PFOA [a particularly toxic substance within the PFAS group]; an adult consuming the one-liter of beverage each day would be exposed to more than 300 times the Minimal Risk Level that the US Food and Drug Administration [FDA], EPA, and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention [CDC] have established for intermediate-duration exposures.”
EDF and GSPI are continuing to work on understanding how the FDA originally concluded that the fluorine treatment was safe, and they are waiting for a response to a Freedom of Information Act request made in May 2021. Additionally, they have been unable to find FDA approval for the use of fluorine gas in treating polypropylene, meaning “food manufacturers could be self-certifying the use of fluorine gas as Generally Recognized as Safe (GRAS) without FDA review” (FPF reported, also here).
Fluorination of plastic containers creates a barrier on the plastic’s surface and increases packaging strength. According to the EDF investigation, the types of containers currently undergoing the fluorination process range from “packaged food and consumer products that individuals buy to larger containers used by retailers such as restaurants to even larger drums used by manufacturers to store and transport fluids.”
Tom Neltner, et al. (July 7, 2021). “Beyond paper: PFAS linked to common plastic packaging used for food, cosmetics, and much more.” EDF
Tom Perkins (July 9, 2021). “Toxic ‘forever chemicals’ are contaminating plastic food containers.” The Guardian
Chemical Watch (July 28, 2021). “US FDA scrutinising fluorinated plastic food containers.”
Tom Neltner and Maricel Maffini (August 9, 2021). “FDA acts on fluorinated plastic packaging. What are next steps?” EDF