Toilet paper is a significant source of harmful ‘forever chemicals’, study finds

Researchers have discovered that toilet paper is a global contributor of ‘forever chemicals’ in wastewater, shedding light on an underlooked issue.

Per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) are a family of around 10,000 chemicals that are used in a huge range of consumer products due to their robust qualities, however the chemicals don’t break down in the environment and some groups, such as PFOAs, have been linked to a range of diseases such as cancer.

PFAS additives are often used in the paper milling-process when wood is turned into pulp, and can remain as a contaminant in toilet paper.

After analysing samples of toilet paper sold across the world, and sewage samples from wastewater treatment works in Florida, researchers at the University of Florida identified toilet paper as a major PFAS source. The findings were published in Environmental Science & Technology Letters.

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The most prevalent substance detected was Polyfluoroalkyl Phosphoric Acid Diesters (diPAPs), which were found in all 14 samples of toilet paper studied, three of which were from the UK.

The most prevalent chemical in both the sewage and toilet paper samples was 6:2 diPAP, this was present at low levels. DiPAPs can become PFCAs when they break down, which are known to have bioaccumulative, adverse effects on both human health and the environment.

In all of the UK and European samples, the levels of PFOA and PFDA found were lower than the study’s limit of detection. The highest levels for both were detected in a US sample.

Using sewage and toilet paper usage data, the scientists extrapolated that toilet paper accounts for around four percent of the most common type of diPAP in US. and Canadian sewage.

The study also concluded that recycled toilet paper could be made with fibres that come from materials containing PFAS. The study did not analyse bamboo toilet roll.