A new US study released in February based on nationwide tests shows that many fast food chains still use food wrappers, bags, and boxes coated with highly fluorinated chemicals linked to an increased risk of certain cancers, hormone problems, high cholesterol, obesity and immune suppression in human and animal studies.
The study, which was published in the peer-reviewed journal Environmental Science & Technology Letters, found one-third of fast food packaging contains chemicals known as PFASs (for poly fluoroalkyl and perfluoroalkyl substances) that give it stain-resistant, water-repellent and non-stick properties.
Scientists from non-profit research organizations including Environmental Working Group (EWG), federal and state regulatory agencies, and academic institutions collaborated to collect and test samples of sandwich and pastry wrappers, French fry bags, pizza boxes, and other paper and paperboard products from 27 fast food chains and several local restaurants in five regions of the US.
They found that of the 327 samples used to serve food, collected in 2014 and 2015, 40 percent tested positive for fluorine, a likely indicator of the compounds known as PFCs or PFAS chemicals.
“Fluorine-based coatings are used in food packaging to repel grease,” said David Andrews, Ph.D., EWG senior scientist, and co-author of the EWG report and the peer-reviewed paper. “There is little public information on how much leaching occurs, as there are lots of different types of coatings made with this family of chemicals. Our tests show they are not necessary because there are PFC-free food wrappers readily available.”
EWG said that perfluorinated chemicals, or PFCs and PFASs, have been linked to cancer, developmental issues, reproductive harm, compromised immune systems and other health effects. Although some PFCs, such as those formerly used to make Teflon and 3M’s Scotchgard, have been banned or phased out as hazardous, chemical companies have flooded the market with a new generation of PFCs that have not been adequately tested for safety.
“We don’t know enough about the safety of the new generation of PFCs,” said Bill Walker, EWG managing editor and co-author of the report. “We know there are
dangers of exposure to some of these chemicals at extremely low doses, especially during critical windows of child development. A woman who eats fast food frequently during her pregnancy might consume enough of these chemicals to affect the future health of her child.”
DuPont has acknowledged that one of these replacement chemicals does cause cancerous tumors in lab animals. And some of these fluorinated chemicals are migrating from the packaging to food; hot, greasy food increases the likelihood of migration.
“It concerns that people could be exposed to these toxic chemicals through the food they eat,” said Dr. Laurel Schaider, an environmental chemist at Silent Spring Institute and the study’s lead author. “PFASs have been linked with numerous health effects including cancer. Children are especially at risk because their developing bodies are more vulnerable to toxic chemicals.”
With national fast food brands sourcing paper from different suppliers, who supply paper that comes from various sources, EWG believes there needs to be a greater level of concern in the supply chain.
“We’re not pointing the finger at the fast food chains or saying it’s safer to eat at one chain compared to another. It’s possible they’re not getting the straight story from their suppliers. This study is a snapshot that shows there’s a problem and both the Food and Drug Administration and the restaurant industry should address it.” EWG's Bill Walker said.