Study: Paper straws contain toxic ‘forever chemicals’—could be worse than plastic

August 28, 2023

It could be the straw that broke the eco-worrier’s back. Paper straws might not be the “eco-friendly” drinking tube they’ve been promoted to be: Belgian researchers found that these so-called “green” utensils are toxic and therefore potentially worse for the environment than their much-vilified plastic counterparts, according to a new study published in the journal, Food Additives & Contaminants.

“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,” Thimo Groffen, Ph.D., study author and an environmental scientist at the University of Antwerp, said in a statement. “However, the presence of PFAS [poly- and perfluoroalkyl-based substances known as “forever chemicals” because they last for a long time before breaking down] in these straws means that’s not necessarily true.”

According to a report by the New York Post, the new research comes following multiple initiatives adopted by numerous U.S. cities, including New York, and by restaurant chains; to ban disposable plastic suckers comprised of polypropylene and polystyrene, which take hundreds of years to decompose and are linked to health problems from liver problems to birth defects.

“Their time has come and gone. I believe we should get rid of plastic straws,” former New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio said in 2018 after the City Council introduced a proposal to prohibit restaurants and bars from distributing plastic sippers.

Meanwhile, countries such as Belgium and the United Kingdom already have ditched these implements in favor of the supposed eco-conscious plant-based alternatives.

However, according to the new research paper, this is a total “strawman argument” — as these alleged environment-saving slushie siphons are potentially packed with more PFAS than the “evil” plastic version.

To deduce this a-straw-calyptic theory, researchers analyzed the PFA concentrations of 39 brands of drinking straws, which comprising five materials: paper, bamboo, glass, stainless steel, and plastic.

They found that paper straws were the most PFA-filled—with a whopping 90% of paper straws containing the chemicals.

Meanwhile, bamboo straws—another highly touted green alternative—clocked in second with 80%,;followed by 75% of plastic straws, 40% of glass straws, and none of steel straws.

By far the most prevalent PFA was perfluorooctanoic acid, which has been been banned globally since 2020. However, this substance is still manufactured in some countries and could be present in products bought by U.S. consumers.

Also present were trifluoroacetic acid and trifluoromethanesulfonic acid; PFAS which easily dissolve in water meaning they could potentially leach out of straws into beverages.

“The presence of PFAS in paper and bamboo straws shows they are not necessarily biodegradable,” warned Groffen.

Not to mention that some of these so-called “100% recyclable” straws are actually anything but.

It’s unclear how these substances — which have been used since the 1940s to repel water and grease in everything from cookware to carpets—ended up in the straws, although the presence of them in every brand suggests they were added on purpose as a liquid repellant.

Other potential PFA sources could be the soil the plant-based materials were grown in as well as the water used in their manufacturing, per Phys.org.

Fortunately, low concentrations of PFAS, such as the amounts ingested from using straws, are unlikely to pose serious health risks.

However, animal studies suggest that an accumulation of these chemicals over time could cause a range of appalling side effects, including liver damage, a weakened immune system, underweight babies, and even infant death.

Unfortunately, the long-term effects on humans are not yet known as the animal tests were conducted with higher levels of PFAs.

In light of the findings, Goffen deduced that plant-based straws are perhaps an environmental “paper tiger” and that there is perhaps only one true eco-friendly alternative to plastic.

“We did not detect any PFAS in stainless-steel straws, so I would advise consumers to use this type ofstraws—or just avoid using straws at all,” the researcher advised.

Research contact: @nypost