As the weather got colder this fall, my son started baking cookies frequently. In November, he made many batches of mocha chocolate chip cookies, his favorite. And to make cleaning up easier, he always used parchment paper on the baking trays.
My delight at having homemade cookies, however, was tempered by my discovery that the roll of parchment paper in the kitchen drawer was “non-stick.” After a quick bit of web searching, I found that this particular brand achieves its non-stick properties by using PFAS, also known as “forever chemicals.” This means we potentially were ingesting some toxic chemicals with each sweet cookie.
While I’m no fan of scrubbing pans, I’m not willing to eat small amounts of poison to avoid the chore. PFAS are toxic chemicals that we don’t need in parchment paper – or in pretty much any other product to which they are added.
PFAS is short for per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances. Once these compounds are in the environment or our bodies, they do not readily break down – hence the nickname “forever chemicals.” PFAS can cause kidney cancer, thyroid disruption, reduced responses to vaccination, and other health problems.
Forever chemicals are widely used in consumer products, such as non-stick pans, and water-, stain- and grease-resistant paper products, clothing, carpets and furniture. We ingest or inhale PFAS as they transfer to food or dust. We may also drink them: PFAS have polluted the drinking water supplies for millions of Americans.
Products that contain PFAS offer consumers convenience – but with a health risk most of us aren’t aware of and that we likely wouldn’t accept if we did know about it. Manufacturers tout the upside of products that make life a bit easier – pans that are easier to wash, packaging for fast food that is less likely to get grease on our hands, and couches that won’t stain as readily if the kid’s ice cream cone drips – without any mention of the health hazards inherent in the production and use of these products.
If consumers knew the health dangers, I suspect many would decide that such products just aren’t worth the risk. Do I want parchment paper that makes clean-up after a cookie-baking session faster? Yes. Do I want parchment paper that might give me and my family kidney cancer? No. Increasing my cancer risk just so I can spend fewer minutes washing dishes is not a trade-off I’d knowingly make. But the packaging for the parchment paper promises easier clean-up without mentioning the health risk, and who would think that paper, of all things, might be hazardous.
PFAS in parchment paper is only one example of how forever chemicals have entered Americans’ homes, where we are exposed to these chemicals on a daily basis. As Frontier Group and Maryland PIRG Foundation describe in our recent report, The Threat of “Forever Chemicals,” the only way to address this threat is to ban the use of all PFAS. Despite industry claims to the contrary, newer PFAS chemicals are not clearly safer than older ones. Replacing one type of PFAS with another can lead to the use of a “regrettable substitute” – a chemical that may be as bad as the one it is replacing, but is less well understood.
It didn’t take much to convince my son that the parchment paper was a problem. He had watched John Oliver’s episode about PFAS and decided he’d rather deal with dirty baking pans than eat cookies tainted with these substances, so he threw out our roll of parchment paper.
It didn’t tangibly change our lives. Our kidney cancer risk dropped a little bit, and we spent a few extra moments washing cookie sheets. And then I discovered a convenient and safe alternative to PFAS-treated parchment paper, so I can have convenience with less risk.
I bought a different brand of paper that uses silicone instead of PFAS chemicals. My son has baked many more batches of mocha chocolate chip cookies on this new parchment paper, and it works just as well as the previous brand. The cookies don’t stick, the pans are easy to clean and, best of all, we aren’t poisoning ourselves with forever chemicals. Our sugar intake is a whole different story.
Associate Director and Senior Policy Analyst, Frontier Group
Elizabeth Ridlington is associate director and senior policy analyst with Frontier Group. She focuses primarily on global warming, toxics, health care and clean vehicles, and has written dozens of reports on these and other subjects. Elizabeth graduated with honors from Harvard with a degree in government. She joined Frontier Group in 2002. She lives in Northern California with her husband and son.