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Ketchup or PFAS With Those Fries?

Researchers Raise Concerns About Chemicals in Fast-Food Packaging

Donald Trump enjoying a celebratory fast-food meal last May after clinching the GOP presidential nomination. (Instagram/@realdonaldtrump)

Donald Trump enjoying a celebratory fast-food meal last May after clinching the GOP presidential nomination. (Instagram/@realdonaldtrump)

As if cheeseburgers, fries and microwave popcorn weren’t enough of a dietary worry, now comes word that fast-food packaging is also a cause for concern.

In a paper published today, federal government and university researchers report finding chemicals from a suspect family of compounds in the wrappers and containers of one out of every three sandwiches, burgers, desserts and bread tested from many leading fast-food chains.

These man-made fluorinated chemicals — also used in furniture, raincoats and carpets – were discovered in grease-resistant sandwich wrappers and paperboard containers.  The researchers note that previous studies have concluded that the substances can leach into food, and several worry that they might pose a danger to human health.

“Given the potential for harm, we must ask if the convenience of water and grease resistance is worth risking our health,” said study co-author Arlene Blum of the Green Science Policy Institute and University of California, Berkeley.  

The fluorinated chemicals at issue, known as PFASs, are a family of synthetic compounds. They include ones that major U.S. manufacturers began voluntarily phasing out more than a decade ago because of possible links to kidney and testicular cancer, low birthweight and thyroid disease.

These problematic “long chain” compounds – described that way because their molecules have a long chain of atoms, especially carbon atoms — do not break down, even at high temperatures. They have been found around the world in water, sediment, soil, wildlife and human blood.

Why Keep Using Them?

More than 90 variations of PFASs – short for per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances — have been approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration for use in food contact materials.  But several of the researchers question whether the FDA has conducted sufficient testing, and they point out that the study shows that worrisome long chain varieties have continued to find their way into at least some fast-food containers. So, these researchers argue, why keep using PFASs when alternatives are readily available?

“The use of fluorinated chemicals in fast food packaging is of great concern since millions of Americans, including children, eat fast food every day,” the study’s lead author, Laurel A. Schaider of Silent Spring Institute, said in a prepared statement.

Study co-author Arlene Blum of the Green Science Policy Institute and University of California, Berkeley.

Study co-author Arlene Blum of the Green Science Policy Institute and University of California, Berkeley.

The researchers, whose study was published in Environmental Science & Technology Letters, examined 407 samples from 27 chains. They found fluorinated chemicals in packaging from 21 of the companies, including McDonald’s, KFC and Burger King. The new study is billed as the most comprehensive assessment ever of fluorinated chemicals in U.S. food packaging.

The scientists found fluorinated chemicals in 56 percent of dessert and bread wrappers, in 38 percent of sandwich and burger wrappers and in 20 percent of paperboard containers. None were found in paper cups.

Graham Peaslee, a University of Notre Dame physicist who developed the technique used in the new study to detect fluorinated compounds, said he was “very surprised to find these chemicals in food contact materials from so many of the samples we tested.”

Among the 20 wrappers and containers that researchers scoured to determine the type of fluorinated chemicals they carried, six were found to have versions of PFASs that manufacturers said they withdrew from the U.S. market years ago. One possible explanation is that the materials were imported from a country where the products still are made.

‘Have Not Been Well-Studied’

In recent years, short-chain PFASs have replaced the type of long-chain compounds that have been linked to cancer and other diseases. Last year, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency issued a health advisory about those long-chain compounds – known as PFOA and PFOS — in the nation’s drinking water supply. The agency, one of whose researchers participated in the study published today, recommended steps to limit the prevalence of the compounds, given that most people already have been exposed to the substances from carpets, clothing, furniture, cookware and food packaging.

Chemical companies insist that their newer products are safe.  For example, literature from DuPont spinoff Chemours  about repellent and surface protection products says that its fluorinated chemicals “deliver superior performance, supported by extensive environmental, health and safety testing.”

In a statement today responding to the new research, the chemical industry group the FluoroCouncil said, “Without further examination of the data, it’s impossible to draw any definitive conclusions about the nature and source of the compounds that were detected in this particular study.” The group added that short-chain PFASs are “highly and rigorously regulated,” and “any further regulation of modern-day short-chain food packaging materials is unnecessary.”

Blum contends that short-chain versions also are worrisome. “Most of the replacements have not been well-studied and probably will never be adequately studied because there are so many of them,” she said. “The replacements share the property of not ever breaking down in the environment.”

The researchers said they asked the 27 fast-food chains represented in the new study about their use of the packaging with PFASs, but only two issued substantive responses. Those two chains, which weren’t identified, said they believed their packaging didn’t contain PFASs but, in fact, the researchers found that the chemicals turned up in “a substantial portion” of their food contact papers.

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About the author

Paul Feldman is a FairWarning staff writer.

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