Study Finds Fast Food Packaging Rife With Harmful Chemicals

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Side of toxins with your burger? If the food itself wasn't bad enough, new research finds highly fluorinated chemicals in fast-food greaseproof packaging.

Advances in science have given us wonders and marvels ... and no shortage of quiet disasters. Take highly fluorinated chemicals. Also known as PFASs or PFCs, these water-, heat-, and oil-resistant chemicals have given us stain-resistant carpets and upholstery, waterproof apparel, floor waxes, nonstick cookware, and even wonderfully slippery dental floss. But some chemicals just don’t belong in the human body – PFASs or PFCs have also given us cancer, thyroid disease, immune suppression, low birth weight, decreased fertility, and many other health effects.

Highly fluorinated chemicals are ubiquitous in the environment and in wildlife because they are so frequently used and so stubbornly resistant to degradation. Virtually all Americans have them in their blood, where they can remain for years.

And now a comprehensive analysis on the prevalence of highly fluorinated chemicals in fast food packaging finds they are even more prevalent there than thought. A group of researchers working together from a number of different institutions tested more than 400 samples from 27 fast food chains throughout the country. Samples included paper wrappers, paperboard, and drink containers. Here’s what they found:

• Almost half of paper wrappers (e.g., burger wrappers and pastry bags) and 20 percent of paperboard samples (e.g., boxes for fries and pizza) contained fluorine – a marker of PFASs.

• Some of the samples contained a type of PFAS called PFOA (perfluorooctanoic acid, also known as C8) – a long-chain PFAS that several U.S. manufacturers voluntarily agreed to stop using in food packaging back in 2011 due to health hazards.

Prior research has found that PFASs in food packaging can leach into food.

“These chemicals have been linked with numerous health problems, so it’s concerning that people are potentially exposed to them in food,” says Laurel Schaider, an environmental chemist at Silent Spring Institute and the study’s lead author. “Children are especially at risk for health effects because their developing bodies are more vulnerable to toxic chemicals,” says Schaider. Especially worrisome, as the study notes, given that approximately one third of children in the U.S. eat fast food every day.

“All PFASs, including the newer replacements, are highly resistant to degradation and will remain in the environment for a long time,” says co-author Graham Peaslee, a physicist at the University of Notre Dame. “Because of this, these highly fluorinated chemicals are not sustainable and should not be used in compostable products or any product that might end up in a landfill.”

To help reduce your exposure, Silent Spring Institute offers the following tips:

• Eat more fresh foods and avoid take-out food items that come in greaseproof packaging.

• Ask fast food restaurants to use packaging free of fluorinated chemicals.

• Encourage state and federal agencies to restrict the use of all fluorinated chemicals in consumer products.

• Use Silent Spring Institute’s Detox Me app – a free smartphone app that walks you through simple, research-based tips on how to reduce your exposure to potentially harmful chemicals, including fluorinated chemicals, where you live and work.

The study, published in Environmental Science and Technology Letters, also included researchers from the California Department of Toxic Substances Control, University of California at Berkeley, Environmental Working Group, the U.S. EPA’s National Exposure Research Laboratory, Oak Ridge Institute for Science and Education.