That fast-food burger, breakfast bun, container of soup, healthy green salad, or bag of French fries you grabbed on your way to work, at lunch, or during the drive home could be packing some potent toxic chemicals. Although it’s great that some fast-food chains and establishments have cleaned up the food they sell (e.g., Chipotle uses responsibly raised meat and is close to GMO-free; Panera has eliminated many artificial ingredients), we need to be concerned about the packaging. According to a new study appearing in Environmental Science & Technology Letters, about one third of fast food packaging samples analyzed in the United States contained fluorinated substances.
What Are Fluorinated Chemicals?
Fluorinated chemicals, such as fluorine, perfluorocarboxylates, and perfluorosulfonates, among others, are used to provide stain-resistant, water-repellant, and non-stick properties to food packaging, among other common products (e.g., clothing, cosmetics, cookware, furniture). Exposure to these compounds in any of these products is not healthy, but this is especially true when it comes to food, as the chemicals can leach into what we eat and expose us to the risk of serious health problems.
Research into the impact of fluorinated chemicals has shown them to be associated with high cholesterol, thyroid problems, testicular and kidney cancer, developmental problems, lower immune response in children, hormone dysfunction, and decreased fertility.
Latest Fast-Food Study
Investigators from Silent Spring Institute, Environmental Working Group, the Green Science Policy Institute, the Environmental Protection Agency, and Notre Dame evaluated about 400 samples of fast food packaging from around the United States. They used particle-induced gamma-ray emission (PIGE) spectroscopy to hone in on their findings, and this is what they discovered:
Overall, 46 percent of papers and 20 percent of paperboard that made contact with food contained fluorinated chemicals.
By food category, the results were 56 percent of bread and dessert wrappers, 38 percent of burger and sandwich wrappers, and 20 percent of paperboard (such as French fry holders) contained fluorinated chemicals.
If you are surprised by these high percentages, you are not the only one. Graham Peaslee, a physicist at the University of Notre Dame who developed PIGE, stated he was “very surprised to find these chemicals in food contact materials” and warned that these compounds “are persistent” and can accumulate in the body.
Another of the study’s authors, Dr. Arlene Blum of UC Berkeley and the Green Science Policy Institute, pointed out that “we must ask if the convenience of water and grease resistance is worth risking our health.” The study’s lead author, Laurel Schaider of Silent Spring Institute, noted that the presence of these toxins is critical “since millions of Americans, including children, eat fast food every day.”
On the surface, the good news is that some harmful fluorinated chemicals are being replaced by other substances, yet “Like the older substances, these new fluorinated compounds do not break down in the environment and may be similarly toxic,” explained Tom Bruton of UC Berkeley and the Green Science Policy Institute.
As consumers, we have several options. One is obvious: simply avoid fast food. Another is to request food items not be placed in store-provided take-out packaging and bring your own containers with you. This may be unrealistic in some cases, and since the nature of fast food is to provide it quickly to consumers, there may be resistance to taking the time to specially package your food.
However, making such a move sends the message that we don’t want our food wrapped in toxic containers. We also can contact the Customer Relations of any fast-food establishments we frequent, ask about the types of packaging they use, and urge them to use safe materials.
Schaider LA et al. Fluorinated compounds in US fast food packaging. Environmental Science & Technology Letters 2017 Feb 1