Not worth a straw
A study, published in Food Additives and Contaminants in August, focused on the presence of synthetic chemicals known as poly- and perfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) in 39 different straw brands.
Hailed as the poster child of eco-conscious consumerism, the benign paper straw has had a great fall in recent times. Despite being seen as a worthy alternative to plastic, the lifecycle of a paper straw is a tale brimming with irony and bandwagonery. It is no wonder then that recent research by Belgian scientists throws up some sobering facts challenging the presumed eco-friendliness of these sippers.
The study, published in Food Additives & Contaminants in August, marked the first of its kind in Europe and the second worldwide. It focused on the presence of synthetic chemicals known as poly- and perfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) in 39 different straw brands.
PFAS are commonly used to make products resistant to water, heat and stains, such as outdoor clothing and non-stick pans. They are, however, also known as ‘forever chemicals’, because they break down slowly and negatively impact the environment. These chemicals have been linked to various health issues, including reduced vaccine response, lower birth weight, thyroid problems, increased cholesterol levels, liver and kidney damage, as well as certain cancers.
In their research, the team purchased drinking straws made from various materials, including paper, bamboo, glass, stainless steel, and plastic, from shops, supermarkets, and fast-food restaurants. The study found that PFAS were present in the majority of the tested straws, with the highest occurrence in paper and bamboo straws. Two rounds of testing for PFAS were conducted, revealing that 27 out of 39 brands (69 per cent) contained toxic substances, with 18 different man-made chemicals detected.
Paper straws were most likely to contain PFAS, found in 18 out of 20 brands (90 per cent), followed by bamboo, with forever chemicals present in four out of five brands (80 per cent). Plastic straws from three out of four brands (75 per cent) and glass straws from two out of five brands (40 per cent) also contained PFAS. None of the stainless steel straws tested positive for PFAS.
Perfluorooctanoic acid is one of the most commonly found PFAS, which was globally banned in 2020. Additionally, the study detected “ultra-short chain” PFAS compounds, including trifluoroacetic acid and trifluoromethanesulfonic acid. These compounds are highly water-soluble, raising concerns about their potential to leach into beverages through straws, but the study did not investigate it.
While the concentrations of the toxins in the straws were generally low and the risk to human health from occasional straw use is limited, PFAS can accumulate in the body over time, and even small amounts can contribute to an individual’s overall chemical exposure.
It remains uncertain whether manufacturers deliberately added PFAS to the straws for waterproofing or if contamination occurred during the growth of plant-based materials or the manufacturing process. The widespread presence of PFAS in paper straws, however, suggests their potential use as water-repellent coatings.
Thus, the ‘long and straw’ of it is paper sippers are not any more eco-friendly than their plastic counterparts. If, however, you have a steely resolve to use one at any cost, stainless steel seems a safer bet. For now.