A new study has found that paper straws may contain toxic chemicals that could potentially cause harm to people, wildlife and the environment. 

Plastic straws have been banned in some countries, including Canada, and ditched by many businesses in an effort to reduce pollution and harm to wildlife and ecosystems, with many switching to paper straws as a replacement. 

However, a recent European study published in the Food Additives and Contaminants Journal discovered that 90% of paper straws contain cancer-causing chemicals and other toxins that lead to thyroid and liver problems.

The chemicals are called poly- and perfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS), they are also referred to as ‘forever chemicals’ as they take thousands of years to break down. Once in the body, the PFAS are liable to cause a whole host of health complications such kidney and testicular cancer as well as liver damage. 

“Because PFAS break down slowly, if at all, people and animals are repeatedly exposed to them, and blood levels of some PFAS can build up over time,” said the US National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (NIH). 

The study randomly selected straws made from glass, stainless steel, paper and bamboo selected from various supermarkets, fast food restaurants and shops and two rounds of tests were conducted on them. Only the stainless steel straws were found to be free of PFAS.

A team of Belgian researchers found a total of 18 different PFAS in 27 out of the 39 brands, including perfluorooctanoic acid being the most common chemical detected throughout the study. Perfluorooctanoic acid has been banned internationally since 2020, yet it could be found in 69% of the brands tested.

PFAS are often used in a number of consumer products, including umbrellas. PFAS umbrellas contain a total of almost 15,00 different synthetic chemicals that pose potential harm to humans, wildlife and the environment and 18 out of the 20 different paper straw brands tested positive for them. Bamboo straws contained the next highest amount of PFAS at 80%, plastic straws at 75% with glass straws the lowest at 40%.

PFAS began being used in consumer products around the 1950’s and were used to keep food from sticking to cookware and packaging. They are also used in clothing and carpet to make the material more 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,” said co-author of the study Dr, Rhino Groffen, an environmental scientist with the University of Antwerp.

“However, the presence of PFAS in these straws means that’s not necessarily true.”

Groffen said that the risk of PFAS to humans in paper straws is limited due to its low concentration; however they can result in PFAS accumulating in the body over time. 

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

It also raises questions regarding the long held assumption that paper straws are more eco-friendly than plastic straws.

Groffen advocated for the use of stainless steel straws if need be but said it was best to avoid using straws altogether.