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Eco-Friendly Straws May Not Be as Safe as They Seem

According to recent research, “eco-friendly” paper drinking straws contain long-lasting and extremely harmful chemicals.

Image Credit: Ivanova Tetyana/

Belgian scientists tested 39 different straw brands for the class of synthetic chemicals known as poly- and perfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) in the first analysis of its kind in Europe and the only second in the world.

Most of the straws examined contained PFAS, which were most frequently found in paper and bamboo straws, according to a study published in the peer-reviewed journal Food Additives and Contaminants.

PFAS are used to create products that are stain, heat, and water resistant, such as non-stick kitchenware and outdoor clothing. However, they could be dangerous to people, wildlife, and the environment.

They degrade very slowly and can linger in the environment for tens of thousands of years; this characteristic has earned them the name “forever chemicals.”

They have been linked to several health issues, such as a decreased response to vaccinations, low birth weight, thyroid disease, elevated cholesterol, liver damage, kidney cancer, and testicular cancer.

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.

Dr. Thimo Groffen, Environmental Scientist, University of Antwerp

A large number of countries, including the United Kingdom and Belgium, have prohibited the sale of single-use plastic products such as drinking straws, and plant-based alternatives have become prominent substitutes.

A recent study in the United States discovered PFAS in plant-based drinking straws. Dr. Groffen and his co-workers wanted to know if the same was true in Belgium.

To dig deeper, the researchers purchased 39 different brands of drinking straws made of five different materials: paper, bamboo, glass, stainless steel, and plastic.

The straws underwent two rounds of PFAS testing after being purchased from stores, supermarkets, and fast-food restaurants.

The majority of the brands (27/39, or 69%) contained PFAS, with a total of 18 different PFAS identified.

PFAS were most likely found in paper straws, with the chemicals identified in 18/20 (90%) of the brands tested. PFAS were also found in 4/5 (80%) of bamboo straw brands, 3/4 (75%) of plastic straw brands, and 2/5 (40%) of glass straw brands. They were not found in any of the five different types of steel straw tested.

Perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA), the most common PFAS, has been banned globally since 2020.

Trifluoroacetic acid (TFA) and trifluoromethanesulfonic acid (TFMS) were also found, which are “ultra-short chain” PFAS that are highly water soluble and may leach out of straws into drinks.

The PFAS concentrations were low, and given that the vast majority only use straws on occasion, they pose a low risk to human health. PFAS, on the other hand, can remain in the body for many years and accumulate in concentrations over time.

Small amounts of PFAS, while not harmful in themselves, can add to the chemical load already present in the body,” states Dr Groffen.

It is unclear whether the PFAS were introduced to the straws by the manufacturers for waterproofing or if they were contaminated. Contamination sources include the soil in which the plant-based materials were grown and the water used in the manufacturing process.

The investigators note that it is possible that the chemicals were occasionally used as a water-repellent coating because they are present in almost every brand of paper straw.

Other limitations of the study include not examining whether PFAS would seep from the straws into liquids.

The presence of PFAS in paper and bamboo straws shows they are not necessarily biodegradable. 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.

Dr. Thimo Groffen, Environmental Scientist, University of Antwerp

Journal Reference:

Boisacq, P., et al. (2023) Assessment of poly- and perfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) in commercially available drinking straws using targeted and suspect screening approaches. Food Additives and Contaminants.


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