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Toxic PFAS “Forever Chemicals” Found in Clothing and Food Packaging in Indonesia
Jakarta, Indonesia - A study released today by the Nexus3 Foundation and IPEN found the “Forever Chemicals” per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) in synthetic clothing, food packaging, and other consumer products sold in Indonesia. PFAS are a large family of chemicals known to persist in the environment and linked with serious health impacts, including cancer, heart disease, and infertility. The study today found that 62% of Indonesian samples tested had high levels of PFAS, above the safety limits proposed in the EU for PFAS in consumer products.
Today’s study follows and elaborates on a Nexus3-IPEN report from earlier this year on “Toxic Hazards in Microwave Popcorn.” That report found that PFAS are widely used in microwave popcorn in the U.S. and Indonesia and drew the attention of Indonesia’s national food and drug regulator (BPOM), which currently has no regulations on PFAS in food packaging.
“We welcome our discussions with the BPOM team and look forward to hearing from other regulators in Indonesia to help develop regulations to protect consumers from PFAS in clothing, food, and other products,” said Yuyun Ismawati, a Senior Advisor with Nexus3. “The troubling findings from our study today indicate that we need stronger regulations to protect our children and families from exposures to toxic PFAS chemicals especially in daily products.”
The thirty-seven Indonesian samples from today’s study include thirteen samples of synthetic clothing, eighteen samples of microwave popcorn bags, four samples of paper food wrapping, one sample of thermal paper, and a sample of rubber crumbs. Samples were purchased from 2019-2022 in markets and from online retailers from four provinces: DKI Jakarta, West Java (Bekasi, Bandung), East Java (Surabaya, Malang), and Banten (Tangerang). Samples were tested at an independent laboratory in Czechia. The findings include:
- Thirty-four out of thirty-seven (91%) samples purchased in Indonesia tested positive for PFAS. Twenty-three of these products (62%) had high levels of PFAS, above the safety limits proposed in the EU for PFAS in consumer products.
- PFAS were found in eleven of the thirteen clothing samples (85%), mainly manufactured in Indonesia, suggesting that PFAS are widely used in waterproof clothing and apparel in Indonesia.
- All microwave popcorn bags (100%) tested positive for PFAS. All of the popcorn purchased in Indonesia was made by U.S. companies and imported to Indonesia.
- The highest PFAS level in the Indonesian products was found in a waterproof hijab.
In addition to hijabs, the PFAS-treated clothing tested for the study include adult shirts, children’s clothing, and athletic wear. Most synthetic textiles (polyester, nylon, spandex, and others) are made from plastics. Toxic chemicals, including PFAS, are commonly added to plastics to confer certain properties – in the case of PFAS, to provide water- and stain-resistance. About half of all PFAS produced globally are used in textiles. Studies have shown that PFAS can be released when people wear clothing, during washing, and when used synthetic textile wastes are disposed.
PFAS released by washing can contaminate waterways, leading to PFAS exposures from contaminated drinking water or food. One recent study suggested that textiles “could be a significant direct and indirect source of [PFAS] exposure for both humans and the environment.”
There is growing evidence of harmful health effects from PFAS exposure. In addition to cancer, heart disease, and infertility, recent studies have linked one or more PFAS to altered glucose metabolism, elevated blood pressure, lower birth weight, damage to semen quality in men, and lower testosterone levels in male adolescents, ovarian insufficiency in women and shorter birth length in girls, abnormal menstruation, and decreased lung function in children with asthma. One study found that people living near chemical plants who have been exposed to PFOA, a globally banned PFAS chemical, have higher rates of kidney and testicular cancer.
The presence of PFAS in popcorn and other food packaging also raises concerns, and evidence shows that diet may be a significant route of PFAS exposure. Studies show PFAS in popcorn bags migrate into food and that people who eat microwave popcorn have higher blood levels of PFAS. PFAS have been found in a variety of foods including in fish, seafood, and meat. PFAS also impact wildlife and the environment: exposure to PFAS poses a health risk not only for humans, but also for wildlife. Studies have detected PFAS in aquatic biota across the globe, including in the Arctic, with concerns that the chemicals may exacerbate climate change and the biodiversity crisis.
"Most of the PFAS compounds are known to be persistent and have a negative impact on the environment and human health. However, until now, research and monitoring of PFAS in Indonesia are relatively small compared to other countries," said Prof. Dr Agus Haryono, Deputy Chairman for Research and Innovation Facilitation of Indonesia’s National Research and Innovation Agency (BRIN). "We appreciate Nexus3 and IPEN for successfully conducting research and demonstrating PFAS monitoring data. I hope that in the future, laboratories in Indonesia will be more active in continuing this PFAS research and monitoring in Indonesia."
Safer alternatives are available as substitutes for PFAS in both textiles and paper packaging. Paraffin and silicone-based substitutes can provide water repellence. Non-chemical alternatives for textiles include tightly woven fabrics and plant-based materials. For paper packaging, high-density paper can prevent the transmission of oils.
As one of the Parties to the Stockholm Convention, Indonesia has ratified this international agreement, which has adopted global bans on three PFAS chemicals (PFOA, PFOS, and PFHxS). While Indonesia has general national laws on hazardous chemicals under review, the country has no national regulations specific to PFAS that include monitoring in the environment, food chains, in products and waste.
"Just because it sounds foreign, PFAS is of less concern to us. So far, we have considered PFAS to be far from our daily lives. In fact, these compounds were created and produced to improve the ease and comfort of our lives, including through a variety of food and clothing products. Without us realizing it, PFAS has been used in our daily life," said Rio Deswandi, National Technical Adviser, UNIDO Indonesia. "This report by Nexus3 and IPEN clearly reveals these "unpleasant facts". Increasing awareness, public advocacy and information disclosure, building national capacity for investigations and inventories, and strengthening management policies are some of the important keys to protecting and fulfilling the right to health. society from the adverse effects of exposure to PFAS. Hopefully, this report will be one of the triggers."
Today’s study includes recommendations for the Indonesian government and its relevant regulatory ministries, and for industry and other stakeholders, including:
- Calling on the Indonesian government to work for stronger global PFAS protections and for regulating PFAS as a class of chemicals (rather than one-by-one) as a Party to the Stockholm and Basel Conventions;
- Calling on the Indonesian BPOM to ban PFAS from food contact materials;
- Calling on the Indonesian Ministry of Trade to ban imported products containing PFAS; and
- Calling on the textile and paper industry to end their use of PFAS in new products and label existing products that contain PFAS and its family.
The study today is a follow-up to the Nexus3 2019 PFAS Country Situation Report which documented the use, disposal, and impacts of PFAS in Indonesia. Previous studies have found PFAS in various products in Indonesia, including soccer shoes, children’s apparel, and coats.
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Nexus Foundation for Environmental Health and Development or Nexus3 Foundation (previously known as BaliFokus Foundation) works to safeguard the public, especially vulnerable populations, from the impact of development on their health and the environment, towards a just, toxic-free, and sustainable future.
The International Pollutants Elimination Network (IPEN) is a global network of more than 600 Participating Organizations in over 125 countries, primarily developing and economic in transition countries. IPEN works to establish and implement safe chemicals policies and practices that protect human health and the environment for a toxics-free future for all.