One in two people living in the UK will develop cancer in their lifetime – a startling statistic. While the good news is that research continues to suggest your risk of the deadly condition is modifiable, there are certain factors that are more difficult to affect. A new study warns that certain plastic containers could lay the groundwork for exposure to chemicals linked to three types of cancer.
From toothpaste tubes stored in your bathroom to meal deals you buy during work lunch, plastics seem to find their way everywhere.
Characterised by their low cost but durable nature, the synthetics are widely used in almost every sector of modern economy.
However, a new study, published in Environmental Science and Technology Letters, found that fluorinated high-density polyethylene (HDPE) plastic containers tested positive for PFAS (per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances).
PFAS are considered to be a toxic class of fluorine compounds known as “forever chemicals”.
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While not all HDPE plastic is fluorinated, it’s often impossible for a consumer to know whether a container has had that treatment.
Worryingly, these containers are used for household cleaners, pesticides, personal care products and, potentially, food packaging, according to the researchers.
The team set out to demonstrate the first measurement of the ability of PFAS to leak from the containers into food as well as the effect of temperature on this process.
They tested HDPE containers that were treated with fluorine to create a thin layer of a fluoropolymer, as a means to impart chemical resistance and improve container performance over long storage periods.
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While these materials generally stay in the container wall, the manufacturing process can generate lots of smaller PFAS molecules, which are not polymers.
The researchers measured PFAS concentrations in olive oil, ketchup and mayonnaise that had been in contact with the tricky containers for seven days at various temperatures.
Analysis of the containers found parts-per-billion levels of the “hazardous chemicals” could migrate into both solvents and food matrices in as little as one week.
Based on the amount found in the different food samples, the study estimated that enough PFAS could be ingested through food stored in the containers to be a significant risk of exposure.
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The substances have also been linked to several health issues including prostate, kidney and testicular cancers, low birth weight, immunotoxicity and thyroid disease.
Graham Peaslee, an author of the study, said: “Not only did we measure significant concentrations of PFAS in these containers, we can estimate the PFAS that were leaching off creating a direct path of exposure.”
The researchers explained that these types of containers are not intended for food storage, but there is nothing preventing them from being used for that purpose at the moment.
Furthermore, if substances like pesticides are stored in these containers and used on crops, the PFAS can make their way into food sources, according to Peaslee.
The researcher said: “Now, consider that not only do we know that the chemicals are migrating into the substances stored in them, but that the containers themselves work their way back into the environment through landfills.
“PFAS doesn’t biodegrade. It doesn’t go away. Once these chemicals are used, they get into the groundwater, they get into our biological systems, and they cause significant health problems.”
Cancer Research UK states that using plastics doesn’t increase the risk of cancer.
In the UK, the Food Standard Agency is supposed to ensure that all plastics used for food and drink are safe.
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