Let’s face it—nobody likes using paper straws. They get soggy, and if you don’t drink your beverage quickly enough, they tend to crumple completely. But after seeing harrowing footage of a sea turtle with a plastic straw stuck up its nose in 2015, many of us begrudgingly accept their existence as being for the greater good.
However, according to a new study, while noble, our efforts to eradicate plastic straws in favor of paper may have been misguided.
While paper straws may not pose a direct risk to wildlife, they do contain synthetic so-called “forever chemicals” known as poly- and perfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS), which break down very slowly over time and can linger for thousands of years. Among other things, PFAS can pose potential risks to people, wildlife, and the environment.
The study, which was conducted by Belgian researchers and published in the peer-reviewed journal Food Additives and Contaminants, tested 39 brands of straws made from five different materials: paper, bamboo, glass, stainless steel, and plastic.
What they learned was that PFAS were found in the majority of the straws tested, with the exception of stainless steel, but were most prevalent in those made from paper and bamboo.
PFAS were found in 90 percent, or 18 out of 20 brands of paper straws, 80 percent of bamboo straws, 75 percent of plastic straws, and 40 percent of glass straws. Of the five brands of stainless steel straws tested, no PFAS were detected.
PFAS are resistant to water, heat, and stains, which is why they are used in manufacturing products such as outdoor clothing to nonstick pans. Though, consumers have been warned against using nonstick pans for this reason. PFAS are linked to a number of health problems, including thyroid disease, increased cholesterol levels, liver damage, different types of cancer such as kidney and testicular.
“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,” said Dr, Thimo Groffen, a University of Antwerp environmental scientist involved in the study, in a press release. “However, the presence of PFAS in these straws means that’s not necessarily true.”
“The presence of PFAS in paper and bamboo straws shows they are not necessarily biodegradable,” Groffen added. “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.”
Groffen did note that because the concentrations of PFAS were relatively low, that they posed a limited risk to human health since most people tend to only use straws occasionally. However, the chemicals can build up over time, and remain in the human body for years.
“Small amounts of PFAS, while not harmful in themselves, can add to the chemical load already present in the body,” Groffen added.
One thing that’s unclear is how the PFAS came to be found in the straws tested. It’s possible that they were added by manufacturers for waterproofing, or as the result of contamination from sources such as the soil the plant-based materials were grown in or the water used in the manufacturing process.