Is It Safe to Filter Coffee Through a Paper Towel?

#EcoAdvice from our expert

Dear Dr. Donley,

I have the hardest time remembering to pick up coffee filters at the store and, on occasion, I am forced to use a paper towel to filter my coffee. Should I be concerned about chemicals leaching into my coffee?

Signed,

Joe, Cuppa

Dear Bare-Bones Barista,

We’ve all bean there.

You wake up with your hair disheveled, eyes half closed, in your undies. You reach for a coffee filter in the cabinet and find an empty box. You feel a pulse of anxiety. You know you don’t have the time to make it to the store and back, and you’re not in the mood to overhear another pretentious conversation while standing in line at the nearby coffee shop.

So you do what your old college roommate used to do more often than you’re comfortable with — you grab a paper towel and put it in the filter cup. While you’re sitting there wondering if you should have doubled up, it hits you. Nothing is sacred anymore.

Your coffee filter and paper towel are much more similar than you think. In fact, besides absorbency and thickness, there are very few differences. But if you think your paper just consists of wood pulp, you’re sorely mistaken. There are a couple of considerations to keep in mind when using either a paper filter or a paper towel.

Is the paper bleached?

In addition to being an incredibly resource-intensive and polluting process, paper bleaching can leave unwanted contaminants in the final product. For most paper products, these contaminants aren’t that worrisome to your health because your potential for exposure is very small; however, in the case of filtering coffee, the hot water acts as an extracting solvent for any chemical that’s in the paper. And with paper that is bleached using chlorine (which most paper is), the most worrisome contaminants are chlorinated dioxins.

An EPA analysis in the ’80s estimated that one out of every 10,000 cases of cancer among daily coffee drinkers could be attributed to dioxins leaching from paper filters. Doesn’t sound like terrible odds? Well, considering there were nearly 250 million Americans over 18 years of age in 2016 and 64 percent of American adults drink at least one cup of coffee per day, that comes to just over 15,000 cases of cancer in the United States — and that’s just from chemicals leaching off of paper.

While recent advances in paper bleaching have certainly reduced this risk, dioxins will always be present to some extent in paper that is bleached using chlorine. Bottom line is: If you’re looking to reduce your dioxin intake, ditch the white paper and go au naturale.

Is the paper recycled?

Paper that we use is loaded with contaminants that are added after the manufacturing process like dyes, fillers and strengthening agents that have undergone very little toxicity testing. Inks and thermal receipt paper can contain Bisphenol-A (BPA), phthalates and other hormone mimicking chemicals. Our regulators say this is okay because most paper that we use will never come into contact with food that we eat or drink.

The problem is, once paper is recycled, a lot of those contaminants get recycled along with the wood pulp. So chemicals that were never meant to be in coffee filters or paper towels are now going to be recycled into your coffee filter or paper towel — and they will leach faster than a cup of coffee makes your heart palpitate.

This is not to say that you should never buy recycled. Recycled paper has clear environmental benefits and is always preferable to buying new on so many levels. Just don’t use it as an excuse not to reduce your paper consumption in the first place.

A great alternative to paper products is a reusable wire mesh filter. You get one and you’re set for life. The coffee tastes a little different because most of the oils pass right through the mesh instead of being retained by the paper filter. Some people prefer the taste, others don’t. Most mesh filters contain some amount of plastic, which is unfortunate (although your coffee maker is mostly plastic anyway).

If you want to graduate to the next level, get a glass French Press and brew the purest cup o’ mud possible. It’ll taste better, too.

Stay wild,

Dr. Donley

Dr. Nathan Donley is a scientist at the Center for Biological Diversity who answers questions about how environmental toxins affect people, wildlife and the environment. Send him your questions at AskDrDonley@biologicaldiversity.org

Read the previous Ask Dr. Donley installment What’s the Safest Laundry Detergent?”