ANTWERP, Belgium — Does using an eco-friendly paper straw give you a good feeling because you’re doing something for the environment? You might want to rethink that. A new study contends that paper drinking straws may not be more environmentally friendly than plastic straws and could pose significant health risks to users as well. The study reveals the presence of “forever chemicals” — compounds that can persist for thousands of years — in these straws, linking them to cancers, thyroid, and liver issues.
Out of the 39 straw brands examined, 90 percent of the paper variants had chemicals known as poly and perfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS). These chemicals were prevalent in straws, especially those made of paper and bamboo. Notably, only the stainless steel straws were free of PFAS.
PFAS chemicals, notorious for their longevity and potential harm, can adversely affect humans, wildlife, and the environment. They are linked to various health issues, including decreased vaccine responsiveness, reduced birth weight, thyroid disease, elevated cholesterol levels, liver damage, kidney cancer, and testicular cancer. Furthermore, these chemicals are used in everyday items, such as outdoor clothing and non-stick pans, to make them water, heat, and stain-resistant.
“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,” says Dr. Thimo Groffen, the study’s corresponding author and an environmental scientist at the University of Antwerp, in a media release.
“However, the presence of PFAS in these straws means that’s not necessarily true.”
As an increasing number of countries, including the United Kingdom and Belgium, prohibit the sale of single-use plastic items, plant-based alternatives have gained traction. These new results echo findings from a prior U.S. study on straws.
For a more in-depth analysis, the researchers acquired 39 distinct straw brands made from five materials: paper, bamboo, glass, stainless steel, and plastic. These straws, mainly sourced from retailers and eateries, underwent two PFAS testing rounds. A staggering 69 percent of these brands contained PFAS, with 18 distinct types of PFAS identified.
Paper straws were the primary culprits, with 90 percent testing positive for PFAS. These chemicals were also found in 80 percent of bamboo straws, 75 percent of plastic straws, and 40 percent of glass straws. Stainless steel straws, however, were completely PFAS-free.
One of the most detected PFAS, perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA), has been globally banned since 2020. The study also identified trifluoroacetic acid (TFA) and trifluoromethanesulfonic acid (TFMS) — both “ultra-short chain” PFAS that are highly soluble and might seep into beverages from straws. Although the PFAS levels were minimal and straws are used sporadically, these chemicals can accumulate in the human body over years.
“Small amounts of PFAS, while not harmful in themselves, can add to the chemical load already present in the body,” says Dr. Groffen.
The researchers from Belgium were unsure if manufacturers added PFAS to the straws for water resistance or if the straws became contaminated during production. However, given the prevalence of these chemicals in nearly all paper straw brands, it’s plausible that some were coated with PFAS for water repellency.
“The presence of PFAS in paper and bamboo straws shows they are not necessarily biodegradable,” Dr. Groffen concludes. “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.”
South West News Service writer Jim Leffman contributed to this report.
The findings are published in the journal Food Additives and Contaminants.