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‘Avoid using’ paper straws as they may be ‘harmful’ to health, study says

‘Avoid using’ paper straws as they may be ‘harmful’ to health, study says

While the ban on single-use plastics in England will be introduced from October 2023, eco-friendly paper straws have replaced their plastic counterparts some time ago.

In March 2019, legislation to ban the supply of plastic straws, stirrers and cotton buds in England was laid in Parliament.

The ban was a part of the Government’s commitment to eliminating all avoidable plastic waste over the lifetime of the 25 Year Environment Plan.

Since then, paper straws have cemented themselves as a better alternative, but a new study, published in the journal Food Additives and Contaminants, has now warned they might be “harmful” to health.

In the first analysis of its kind in Europe, a Belgian research team tested 39 brands of straws for the group of synthetic chemicals known as poly- and perfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS), which could not only spell bad news for human health but also the environment.  

PFAS can break down very slowly over time and can persist over thousands of years in the environment, which has led to them being known as “forever chemicals.”  

What’s worse, they have been linked to an array of health problems, including lower response to vaccines, lower birth weight, thyroid disease, increased cholesterol levels, liver damage, kidney cancer and testicular cancer.   

Worryingly, the study findings found PFAS in the majority of the straws tested, with most common sources being paper and bamboo drinking straws.

Researcher Dr Thimo Groffen, who was involved in this study, said: “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.”  

Taking to shops, supermarkets and fast-food restaurants, the researchers purchased 39 different brands of drinking straws made from five materials – paper, bamboo, glass, stainless steel and plastic.  

After the straws underwent two rounds of testing for PFAS, the team found that 69 percent of brands contained the substances, with 18 different PFAS detected in total.  

Paper straws were the type most likely to contain the pesky substances, with the chemicals detected in 90 percent of the brands tested. 

Furthermore, the forever chemicals were also detected in 80 percent of brands of bamboo straws, 75 percent of the plastic straw brands and 40 percent of brands of glass straws.  

The only type of straws that had no traces of PFAS were steel straws, the researchers noted.

Fortunately, the PFAS concentrations were low and might only pose a limited risk to health because most people tend to only use straws occasionally.

However, PFAS can remain in the body for many years and concentrations can build up over time, the research team warned.

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

Despite the striking findings, the researchers warned there are some limitations to the study, including not looking at whether the PFAS would leach out of the straws into liquids. 

Dr Groffen added: “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.”