Fast food packaging contains chemicals that could be harmful, a new study suggests.
Writing in the journal Environmental Science & Technology Letters, researchers from the Silent Spring Institute say the grease-proof packaging often used by fast food chains contain potentially dangerous fluorinated chemicals and can leak into the food.
In what they are calling the “most comprehensive analysis to date on the prevalence of highly fluorinated chemicals in fast food packaging in the United States,” researchers say they tested 400 samples from 27 fast food chains for chemicals called PFASs (per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances), also called PFCs, which are often found in “nonstick, stain-resistant, and waterproof products, including carpeting, cookware, outdoor apparel, as well as food packaging.”
Samples included paper wrappers, drink containers and paperboard.
"These chemicals have been linked with numerous health problems, so it's concerning that people are potentially exposed to them in food," said Laurel Schaider, an environmental chemist at Silent Spring Institute and the study's lead author. “Exposure to some PFASs has been associated with cancer, thyroid disease, immune suppression, low birth weight, and decreased fertility. "Children are especially at risk for health effects because their developing bodies are more vulnerable to toxic chemicals."
Schaider added that about one out of every three children eat fast food every day.
In their analysis of fast food packaging, researchers said 20 percent of paperboard samples, including boxes for french fries and pizza, contained fluorine. Furthermore, Tex-Mex food packaging as well as bread and dessert wrapping was most likely to have fluorine.
In a more rigorous analysis of a subset of 20 samples, researchers found that “in general,” samples were high in fluorine. They also contained PFASs.
Six of the samples contained a so-called long-chain PFAS called PFOA (perfluorooctanoic acid, also known as C8), which several U.S. manufacturers agreed to stop using after a 2011 review by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.
Despite PFASs being phased out in the United States, they are still used in other countries. Some companies have been replacing them with shorter-chained PFAS compounds.
"The replacement compounds are equally persistent and have not been shown to be safe for human health," says co-author Arlene Blum, founder of the Green Science Policy Institute. "That's why we need to reduce the use of the entire class of highly fluorinated compounds. The good news is there are non-fluorinated alternatives available."
Even if PFASs are phased out, researchers say they can still make their way into our bodies, either through the use of recycled materials or through accumulation in landfills, which could seep into groundwater.
"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 who developed the PIGE method to screen food wrappers. "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."