Paper drinking straws are no better for the environment than plastic ones and could cause serious health problems, a new study claims.
A European study say they contain ‘forever chemicals’ that can take thousands of years to break down and have been linked to cancers, thyroid and liver problems.
Researchers studied 39 different brands of straw and found that 90 per cent of the paper ones contained chemicals known as poly- and perfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS).
They were found in the majority of the straws tested and were most common in those made from paper and bamboo. The only PFAS-free staws were stainless steel ones.
PFAS chemicals are potentially harmful to people, wildlife and the environment.
They break down very slowly over time persisting over thousands of years and have been associated with a number of health problems, including lower response to vaccines, lower birth weight, thyroid disease, increased cholesterol levels, liver damage, kidney cancer and testicular cancer.
They are used to make everyday products, from outdoor clothing to non-stick pans, resistant to water, heat and stains.
The results from the first analysis of its kind in Europe, were published in the journal Food Additives and Contaminants.
Dr Thimo Groffen, an environmental scientist at the University of Antwerp, said: ‘Straws made from plant-based materials, such as paper and bamboo, are often advertised as being more sustainable and eco-friendly than those made from plastic.
‘However, the presence of PFAS in these straws means that’s not necessarily true.’
A growing number of countries, including the UK and Belgium, have banned sale of single-use plastic products, including drinking straws, and plant-based versions have become popular alternatives.
The results replicate those of the only other previous study on straws in the US.
To explore this further, the research team purchased 39 different brands of drinking straw made from five materials – paper, bamboo, glass, stainless steel and plastic.
The straws, which were mainly obtained from shops, supermarkets and fast-food restaurants, then underwent two rounds of testing for PFAS.
The majority of the brands (27/39, 69 per cent) contained PFAS, with 18 different PFAS detected in total.
The paper straws were most likely to contain PFAS, with the chemicals detected in 18/20 (90 per cent) of the brands tested.
PFAS were also detected in 4/5 (80 per cent) brands of bamboo straw, three quarters of the plastic straw brands and 2/5 (40 per cent) brands of glass straw.
They were not detected in any of the five types of steel straw tested.
The most commonly found PFAS, perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA), has been banned globally since 2020.
Also detected were trifluoroacetic acid (TFA) and trifluoromethanesulfonic acid (TFMS), ‘ultra-short chain’ PFAS which are highly water soluble and so might leach out of straws into drinks.
The PFAS concentrations were low and, bearing in mind that most people tend to only use straws occasionally, pose a limited risk to human health.
However, PFAS can remain in the body for many years and concentrations can build up over time.
‘Small amounts of PFAS, while not harmful in themselves, can add to the chemical load already present in the body,’ sid Dr Groffen.
The Belgian team said they couldn’t tell whether the PFAS were added to the straws by the manufacturers for waterproofing or whether were the result of contamination.
Potential sources of contamination include the soil the plant-based materials were grown in and the water used in the manufacturing process.
However, the presence of the chemicals in almost every brand of paper straw means it is likely that it was, in some cases, being used as a water-repellent coating, say the researchers.
‘The presence of PFAS in paper and bamboo straws shows they are not necessarily biodegradable,’ said Dr Groffen.
‘We did not detect any PFAS in stainless steel straws, so I would advise consumers to use this type of straw – or just avoid using straws at all.’
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