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New study finds harmful forever chemicals in seemingly 'green' products: 'I would not consider that biodegradable'

A recent study revealed that these biodegradable alternatives might not be as environmentally-friendly as they appear.

Biodegradable straws, Harmful forever chemicals in seemingly ‘green’ products

Photo Credit: iStock

In 2018, news about how plastic straws pose dangers to wildlife went viral. After that, many people and restaurants switched to biodegradable straws. But a recent study revealed that these biodegradable alternatives might not be as environmentally friendly as they appear.

What's happening?

When biodegradable straws started gaining popularity, John Bowden, an assistant professor at the University of Florida's College of Veterinary Medicine, was skeptical, reported Environmental Health News. 

He assembled a team to study biodegradable straws from 38 different brands. The team was looking for per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS), which are often used as a liquid-resistant coating.

PFAS are often called "forever chemicals" because they don't break down naturally — in other words, they aren't biodegradable. 

Bowden's team detected 21 different PFAS chemicals and found that 36 of the 38 brands tested had PFAS.

"[PFAS are] very persistent, they repel water, those properties make it very difficult for them to break down," Bowden told Environmental Health News. "If PFAS are on it, I would not consider that biodegradable."

Why are PFAS concerning?

When products containing PFAS — like food wrappers, cosmetics, and furniture — end up in landfills, those chemicals leach into groundwater. From there, the chemicals can contaminate water supplies. 

The Environmental Working Group estimated that there are 2,858 water supplies contaminated with PFAS in the U.S. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported that 97% of Americans have some concentration of PFAS in their bodies.

Small exposure to PFAS isn't harmful, but when exposure adds up, it can cause health risks. Exposure to PFAS has been linked to increased cholesterol rates, decreased vaccine response in children, and heightened risk of kidney and testicular cancer.

What's being done about PFAS?

As the risks of PFAS become more widely recognized, countries are taking action. Earlier this year, the Netherlands, Germany, Denmark, Sweden, and Norway submitted a proposal to ban the use and production of PFAS.

Because PFAS are used in many products, the proposal suggested PFAS "should only be allowed for essential uses" before being completely phased out. 

In the U.S., individual states have taken steps to limit the use of PFAS. 33 states currently have policies that limit or prohibit the use and production of PFAS.

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