A new study has revealed that some fast food packaging contains potentially harmful chemicals that can leach into food.
According to the journal, Environmental Science and Technology Letters, researchers found more than 20 toxic highly fluorinated chemicals, including a phased-out substance.
Researchers tested more than 400 samples of bags, wrappers, boxes, and cups from 27 fast-food and fast-casual restaurant chains in the U.S. in 2014 and 2015.
They found out that many of these kinds of paper packaging and paperboard containers are laced with per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, or PFASs, also called fluorinated chemicals.
PFASs are a big class of more than 3,000 widely used chemicals that make things grease- and stain-resistant. The problem is, the substances don’t break down over time. That means they build up in the environment and in our bodies.
One-third of all the samples, or 33%, tested positive for PFASs. Bread and dessert wrappers were the most likely to have them — about half tested positive. Burger wrappers were second — 38% of those tested had PFAS. About 1 in 5 paperboard containers, like the boxes that hold french fries, also tested positive. Paper cups seemed to be in the clear — none tested positive for PFAS.
To confirm the test, a second test was carried out in 20 containers and six containers tested positive for PFOA, or C8, a chemical that was once a major component of Teflon nonstick coating.
PFOA is a specific kind of PFAS. For safety reasons, the EPA asked manufacturers to stop making it in the U.S., and last year, the FDA officially banned it in food packaging used in this country. But PFOA is still being made in other countries, like China. The study authors say it’s not clear exactly how PFOA ended up in some of the food packaging they tested, but it’s not a good sign.
Some long-chain PFASs had commonly been used in a wide range of products to make them stain-resistant or waterproof. Grease-proof packaging has helped make burgers and pizzas on-the-go a less messy proposition.
Previous studies in humans have suggested that long-chain PFASs, are associated with developmental problems in children, decreased fertility and an increased cancer risk. They have also been linked to a variety of human health issues, including cancers, immune system damage, and high cholesterol. These typically happen when people are continuously exposed to small amounts over long periods of time.
Earlier research has shown that substances in food packaging can migrate into food and, when discarded in landfills, could contribute to elevated levels of PFASs in the environment. The researchers say this could lead to the persistence of some of the compounds, even if phased out, for many years to come.
Study lead author Doctor Laurel Schaider, an environmental chemist at Silent Spring Institute, said:
“These chemicals have been linked with numerous health problems, so it’s concerning that people are potentially exposed to them in food.
“Children are especially at risk for health effects because their developing bodies are more vulnerable to toxic chemicals.”
Co-author Doctor Arlene Blum, the founder of the Green Science Policy Institute, said:
“The replacement compounds are equally persistent and have not been shown to be safe for human health.
“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.”
In addition, Co-author Professor Graham Peaslee, a physicist at the University of Notre Dame who developed the method to screen food wrappers said:
“All PFASs, including the newer replacements, are highly resistant to degradation and will remain in the environment for a long time.
“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.”
For safety, the researchers say people can reduce their exposure to the chemicals by avoiding food that’s been in contact with greaseproof packaging, such as microwave popcorn, some pizza boxes, take-out containers, and wraps around fast food.
So when next you want to get yourself a fast food, you may want to think twice because you could also be getting a side of chemicals that have a poor safety and environmental record.