Published February 1 in the journal Environmental Science & Technology, a new study reveals that many grease-resistant fast-food wrappers contain potentially harmful fluorinated chemicals that can leach into food, having significant long-term health effects.
What are Fluorinated Chemicals
Fluorinated chemicals, as a class, are referred to as per– and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFASs). Many products, such as carpeting, upholstery, floor waxes, and outdoor apparel, contain these chemicals. Additionally, manufacturers treat fast-food packaging with PFASs so as to make the wrappers and boxes grease-resistant.
However, due to health risks, only “short-chain” fluorinated chemicals are still used in fast-food packaging, according to the Foodservice Packaging Institute. The “short-chain” chemicals “have been rigorously reviewed by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and found to be safe for their intended use,” the industry group said in a statement. Since PFOA and PFOS are “long-chain” chemicals, the institute claims to have phased them out.
“Today’s food service packaging is no longer treated with ‘long-chain’ fluorochemicals, and instead use FDA-approved ‘short-chain’ fluorochemicals or even newer barrier coatings, which are free of any fluorochemicals,” the group added.
In previous studies, focused on fluorinated chemicals such as perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) and perfluorooctanesulfonic acid (PFOS), results showed a myriad of health effects connected to chemical exposure. For instance, researchers found kidney and testicular cancer, low birth weight, thyroid disease, decreased sperm quality, pregnancy-induced high blood pressure among those being studied, as well as immune system problems in children.
Because of the varying health risks connected to PFOA and PFOS, major U.S. manufacturers began phasing out the chemicals back in 2011. However, recent research indicates that fluorinated chemicals are still present in food packaging.
The recent study involved more than 400 samples from 27 fast-food chains in five metropolitan areas across the United States. The samples were then organized into six categories:
- Food contact paper (sandwich wrappers and pastry bags)
- Food contact paperboard (boxes for fries or pizza)
- Non-contact paper (outer bags)
- Paper cups
- Other beverage containers (milk and juice containers)
- Miscellaneous (lids)
In order to detect and analyze the levels of fluorine, the researchers used particle-induced gamma-ray emission (PIGE) spectroscopy. “Paper normally doesn’t contain much fluorine, so we reasoned this would be a method of detecting the presence of PFASs,” said lead researcher Laurel Schaider, an environmental chemist at Silent Spring Institute in Massachusetts.
Ultimately, they found traces of fluorinated chemicals in one-third of the fast-food packaging tested. To validate their results, the researchers conducted additional tests. So as to be more detailed, the team studied a subset of 20 samples. In the end, they confirmed their original findings because the new samples high in fluorine also contained PFASs. Moreover, six of the samples contained a long-chain PFOA. As previously mentioned, long-chain PFOA are supposedly no longer used because of health hazards.
The reason why long-chain PFOAs may be present is because of recycled paper. Since these long-chain chemicals don’t easily decompose, traces remain in recycled paper. Schaider commented that “it seems incompatible to have these chemicals that never break down in paper that we want to compost.”
Following the testing, the research team found that nearly half of fast-food wrappers and one out of five paperboard boxes have detectible levels of fluorine. Though burgers and sandwiches are the most common uses for fast-food wrappers, desserts, breads, and Tex-Mex foods actually contain the highest levels of fluorine.
- 38% of burger/sandwich food contact paper contained fluorine
- 56% of dessert/bread food contact paper contained fluorine
- 57% of Tex-Mex food contact paper contained fluorine
- 20% of paperboard contained fluorine
- 16% of milk and juice containers contained fluorine
Long-Term Health Effects
Following the study, it’s now known that PFASs can leach into food from packaging. When exposed to heat and grease, the packaging releases the chemicals into the food. Consuming these chemicals raises concern regarding the long-term health effects on children. As cheap, convenient, and popular as fast-food is, children are exposed early and frequently.
The study authors claims that a third of U.S. children, on average, eat fast food every day. “With chemicals like this, exposure begins in utero and continues once we’re born through childhood and into adulthood,” said Dr. Kenneth Spaeth, chief of occupational and environmental medicine for Northwell Health in New York. “That has real potential ramifications in terms of our health.”
How to Avoid PFASs in Fast-Food
Right now, there aren’t many ways to avoid PFASs when it comes to fast-food packaging. However, Schaider offers a few suggestions. For instance, take the “food out of the packaging sooner rather than later.” Consumers can also ask to have their food packaged differently. Ask to have your fries or dessert served in a paper cup, for example. Ultimately, it’s up to consumers to change the way fast-food chains package the food by demanding they use paper without PFASs.
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