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Researchers are concerned that toilet paper may be introducing harmful chemicals into wastewater systems. Science Photo Library / Getty Images
  • Researchers are reporting toilet paper may be releasing potentially harmful substances known as PFAS into wastewater systems.
  • PFAS are found in paper products as well as cosmetics and cleansers.
  • They say the chemicals are suspected of contributing to an array of health issues from cancer to infertility to liver disease.

Toilet paper may play a role in the contamination of groundwater with potentially harmful substances called PFAS.

Per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) are found in a wide variety of consumer products, including cosmetics, cleansers, and firefighting foams.

While research is not conclusive, PFAS are suspected of playing a role in a variety of conditions, including cancer, reduced immunity, and reproductive and developmental problems.

“Exposure to PFAS through drinking water puts people’s health at risk,” Dr. Katie Pelch, a scientist with the Natural Resources Defense Council, told Healthline. “Groundwater can also be used for agricultural uses and it has been shown that plants, including crops, can take up PFAS, so food in the diet is another potential source of PFAS exposure.”

Researchers from the University of Florida studying the presence of PFAS in wastewater say they discovered that one particular compound, called 6:2 diPAP, was the most commonly detected PFAS in sewage sludge samples, albeit at low levels.

It also was found to be the most common PFAS found in samples of toilet paper sold in North America and South America as well as in Africa and western Europe.

They published their findings today in the American Chemical Society’s online journal.

In their study, the researchers estimated that toilet paper contributed about 4% of the 6:2 diPAP in sewage in the United States and Canada as well as 35% in Sweden and up to 89% in France.

“It’s not all of the problem, but it’s certainly a part of it,” said Jake Thompson, a senior study author and a University of Florida graduate student.

He noted that the data “suggests that there are regional differences in contamination.”

According to the study, some paper manufacturers add PFAS when converting wood into pulp. Recycled toilet paper may also be made with fibers from materials containing PFAS.

“We believe it comes from the pulping process and is put on instruments to keep paper from sticking,” Timothy Townsend, PhD, a lead author of the study and a professor in the University of Florida’s Department of Environmental Engineering Sciences, told Healthline.

“PFAS detected in toilet paper at parts per billion levels are most likely contaminants that arise from the packaging and/or manufacturing process,” agreed Pelch.

Researchers said that the relatively low percentage of 6:2 diPAP in wastewater gathered in the United States, coupled with the fact that Americans use more toilet paper per capita than people in other nations, suggests that most 6:2 diPAP contamination comes from other consumer products.

“The idea that the wastewater treatment plant or the landfill is the problem is a little misconstrued,” said Townsend.

The toilet paper industry also wanted it noted that they believe their product itself is not the culprit.

A statement sent to Healthline by the American Forest & Paper Association states:

“PFAS (including 6:2 diPAP) is not used in the manufacture of toilet paper, or in the production of other tissue products in the United States.

“The University of Florida study examines concentration information in toilet paper for PFAS including PFOA, the most studied PFAS. However, the study fails to acknowledge that PFOA is widespread in the environment. In the study, toilet paper samples tested were close to or below the limit of detection, consistent with PFOA levels found in the environment and not attributable to the manufacturing process.

“Our industry is committed to product and environmental safety, and we continue to lead on product stewardship and innovation in the manufacture of sustainable and essential paper and tissue products.”

A growing number of research studies are showing that PFAS pose significant health and environmental risks, said Craig Butt, PhD, the manager of applied markets in the division of Strategic Global Technical Marketing at the biomedical and environmental firm SCIEX.

“PFAS have been linked to everything from elevated cholesterol levels and liver damage to fertility problems and cancer,” Butt told Healthline. “In recent years, regulatory agencies in Europe and the United States have begun placing statutory limits on PFAS in drinking water and in consumer products. Furthermore, emerging epidemiological and toxicological studies are showing that there are no safe exposure levels to PFAS for humans, which indicates that even minuscule amounts of contamination can create significant issues.”

Butt said that there are an estimated 5,000 PFAS chemicals, “many of which are not well characterized or understood.”

The Natural Resources Defense Council recommends that manufacturers discontinue all non-essential use of PFAS chemicals.

“That PFAS are being detected in toilet paper is a good example of an instance where intentional use elsewhere in the economy is spilling over and becoming a contamination issue in a product where PFAS is not needed,” said Pelch. “Because PFAS are ubiquitous in our environment, individuals cannot buy our way out of PFAS exposure, and therefore a comprehensive approach is needed, including the phase-out of all nonessential uses of PFAS as quickly as possible. Furthermore, research and development of safer alternatives to PFAS is needed to address those uses that are currently unavoidable.”

Dr. Scott Bartell, a professor of environmental and occupational health at the University of California Irvine’s Program in Public Health, told Healthline that it’s difficult, but not impossible, to filter PFAS out of drinking water.

“Traditional community water treatment processes don’t remove PFAS and drinking water regulations haven’t kept up with the evolving science on the health effects of PFAS, so even water supplies that are well treated and otherwise safe may contain harmful levels of PFAS chemicals,” he said. “PFAS also remain in the environment for decades or centuries, as they don’t break down very easily, so PFAS that we put into the groundwater now will still be there for future generations to deal with.”

However, Bartell added, “people with PFAS in their drinking water can remove at least some PFAS chemicals from their water with NSF-approved water filters, which use granular activated carbon to absorb the PFAS.”

“Graphite filters have been shown to be effective in mitigating PFAS contamination to an extent,” agreed Butt. “The limitation of such filters is that … the filter can’t hold a lot of capacity. But even if successful in capturing PFAS, the next question is what to do with the filter, which has now become contaminated with PFAS.”