When grabbing a sweet, sticky bun from the grocery store for
breakfast, one might rejoice in the fact that it cleanly slides out of the
wrapper and onto a plate. While consumers may not think twice about why it is
not sticking, researchers are trying to shed light on how this convenient
packaging could potentially expose humans to toxic chemicals called PFAS.
Per- and polyfluorinated alkyl substances (PFAS) are a class
of man-made chemicals lauded for their nonstick and oil-repellent
characteristics. While useful in the food industry, there is evidence that
exposure to these persistent chemicals may lead to adverse outcomes in human health.
Supported by the Agriculture and Food Research Initiative
(AFRI) of the USDA National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA), the
University of Pittsburgh’s Carla Ng will lead a project that aims to be the
first systematic study of the kinds and amount of PFAS that are present in
imported and domestic food packaging. She and her collaborators from Indiana
University and the USDA – Agricultural Research Service (ARS) will create a
database that they hope will help guide better policy around the use of PFAS in
the food industry.
“Humans are exposed to PFAS in a variety of ways, but
depending on where you live, food is likely your major source,” said Ng,
assistant professor of civil and environmental engineering at Pitt’s Swanson
School of Engineering. “There are many different types of PFAS, and we don’t
have enough information on where they are used, in what quantities, and whether
they’re toxic, so we will use this award to study those details.”
According to the FDA, there are nearly 5,000
different types of PFAS. To add to the complexity of this issue, other
countries have adopted different approaches to regulating PFAS and its many
For example, PFOA
and PFOS have been phased out in the United States, but they are
still widely produced in China. While they do not send these specific chemicals
to the U.S., there may be residual chemicals that are transferred during
“Because of these uncertainties, we want to understand how
all the different origins of packaging will impact which PFAS actually wind up
in the consumer product,” said Ng.
The research team will inspect national supermarket chains
and local international food stores to get an idea of the type and geographic
origin of food packaging. They will then collect a representative sample of
products and analyze the packaging for the presence of PFAS.
“We will use extraction and migration assays to evaluate the
packaging,” explained Ng. “Extraction would represent an extreme case where we
use harsh chemicals to gather a sample. Alternatively, the migration assays use
simulants which represent different types of food – such as fatty, acidic, or salty. It will
show, under normal conditions, how much PFAS transferred from packaging to
ARS researcher Yelena Sapozhnikova will contribute to this work
by identifying PFAS chemicals migrating from food packaging materials with
non-targeted, high-resolution mass spectrometry. Sapozhnikova's interest in
this research is a direct result from her previous work on identification of
chemicals from food contact materials.
Once the PFAS structures are identified, they will go to
Amina Salamova, associate scientist at IU’s O’Neill School of Public and
Environmental Affairs, whose team will quantify how much of each structure is
in the sample.
“We’re excited to conduct research that has such big
implications for consumer safety,” Salamova said. “This research will help us
understand a lot more about a group of chemicals that are widely used but not
From there, the analyzed extracts and simulants will go to
Pitt to be tested for toxicity. Ng’s lab specializes in molecular modeling that
can initially screen the samples before evaluating them in zebrafish for
The results of the project
will reveal whether the chemicals present in the packaging are toxic and if the
concentration is high enough to contaminate your food. The researchers hope
that this work will inform regulators, provide a risk assessment tool, and
potentially reveal hot spots for PFAS exposure in our food system.
# # #
Contact: Leah Russell