Connecting the Dots: Toilet Paper and PFAS in Wastewater

Do you remember when everyone was rushing to the grocery store and practically fighting over toilet paper during the pandemic? Perhaps it was better to leave them on the shelves, as recent findings suggest that toilet paper is a source of PFAS in wastewater.

Synthetic “forever” chemicals known as PFAS (per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances) lurk in countless products, including cosmetics, cleaning solutions, and nonstick cookware. Because most PFAS do not decompose in landfills and can contaminate drinking water sources for all living beings, they are harmful to the environment. Furthermore, although research is inconclusive, PFAS may cause various conditions, including cancer, reproductive disorders, and developmental problems. Read Understanding PFAS: Prevalence, Health Effects, and How to Reduce Exposure for a complete guide to these presumed carcinogens.

Going back to our main topic, according to researchers from the University of Florida, the rolls of toilet paper many of us use daily are also a source of PFAS in wastewater.


Key Findings From Toilet Paper PFAS Study

Researchers from the University of Florida recently concluded their comprehensive investigation into PFAS presence in wastewater. The 2023 study, published in the journal of the American Chemical Society, highlighted a compound called 6:2 diPAP. It emerged as the most prevalent PFAS compound in sewage sludge samples, although in low amounts. It was also the predominant PFAS compound in toilet paper samples obtained from North America, South America, Africa, and western Europe.

The researchers estimated that toilet paper contributed around 4 percent of the 6:2 diPAP present in sewage within the United States and Canada. In Sweden, this contribution rose to 35 percent, while in France, toilet paper accounted for up to 89 percent of the 6:2 diPAP levels in sewage.

Jake Thompson, one of the study’s senior authors and an alumnus of the University of Florida, acknowledged that while toilet paper is not to blame for the entire problem, it has an undeniable role. He also noted that the data indicate regional variations in contamination levels.


Suspected Origins of PFAS Contamination in Toilet Paper

Timothy Townsend, PhD, a lead author of the study and a professor at the University of Florida’s Department of Environmental Engineering Sciences, explained that PFAS could find its way into toilet paper through various means. Townsend and his co-researchers mentioned that paper manufacturers could introduce 6:2 diPAP during the wood-to-pulp conversion process, and that recycled toilet paper might contain fibers sourced from PFAS-containing materials. When people use and flush these tissues down the toilet, they enter waste streams.

However, the relatively low percentage of 6:2 diPAP in wastewater in the United States, coupled with the fact that Americans consume more toilet paper per capita than people in other countries, implies that most 6:2 diPAP contamination comes from other products. This revelation challenges the misconception that wastewater treatment plants or landfills alone are responsible for the issue.


Response From Toilet Paper Manufacturers

Toilet paper manufacturers contend that their products are not the primary source of PFAS. The American Forest and Paper Association (AF&PA) conveyed in a statement to Healthline that PFAS, including 6:2 diPAP, is not utilized in the production of toilet paper or other tissue products in the United States. They argue that the study failed to recognize the widespread presence of PFOA, a well-studied PFAS compound, in the environment.

The AF&PA also stressed that the tested toilet paper samples had PFAS levels near or below the detection limit, which are consistent with environmental PFOA levels and not attributable to the manufacturing process.


How Does PFAS in Toilet Paper Reach Humans?

Regardless of the origin, families can become exposed to PFAS from toilet paper through the following pathways:

  • Wastewater treatment plants: PFAS present in toilet paper can enter wastewater treatment plants through sewage systems. While treatment processes can remove some contaminants, PFAS are challenging to eliminate. Trace amounts can still be discharged into receiving bodies of water.
  • Land application of biosolids: Wastewater treatment plants often produce biosolids, nutrient-rich materials derived from the treatment process. These biosolids also serve as a form of fertilizer. If PFAS from toilet paper is present in the wastewater treatment plant, it can accumulate in the biosolids and contaminate soil.
  • Water sources: If treatment processes fail to eliminate PFAS from wastewater, they can enter rivers or lakes. From there, they have the potential to contaminate drinking water sources, posing risks to human health.

It’s important to note, however, that while toilet paper may contribute to PFAS contamination in wastewater, it is not the sole source. As Thompson mentioned, PFAS can come from other consumer products, as well as industrial discharges and historical contamination sites.


How Can We Take Back Control?


Given the widespread presence of PFAS in everyday products, how can individuals reduce the amount of PFAS entering wastewater and coming back through the mentioned pathways? Here are actions people can take to help minimize PFAS discharge:


  • Be mindful of product choices: Select consumer products labeled as PFAS-free or have undergone third-party testing for PFAS content.
  • Avoid unnecessary flushing: Refrain from flushing down items that could contain PFAS, such as wipes, paper towels, and any other materials or substance. Instead, dispose of these items properly in trash receptacles.
  • Support regulatory efforts: Stay informed about local and national regulations regarding PFAS. Engage in advocacy efforts and support initiatives that aim to limit the use and discharge of PFAS into the environment.
  • Promote responsible waste management: Properly dispose of consumer products that may contain PFAS according to local guidelines. Participate in recycling programs and encourage responsible waste management practices to prevent PFAS-containing items from entering the waste stream.
  • Raise awareness: Educate others about the potential risks associated with PFAS and the importance of reducing their presence in everyday products. Share information with friends, family, and your community to encourage collective action.


By making conscious choices and promoting responsible practices, everyone can help reduce the introduction of chemicals into wastewater, thereby mitigating their environmental impact for a safer and cleaner future.


“We [will also] continue our research to examine the occurrence and fate of PFAS in different waste streams,” added Townsend.

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