Fast food with a side of fluorinated chemicals.
James/flickr

Fast food with a side of fluorinated chemicals.

Fast food packaging from popular spots like McDonald’s and Starbucks contain a potentially harmful chemical that leaches into the food.

Looking for some quick calories? Maybe skip the take-out.


About one-third of containers, wrappers and boxes for fast food contain fluorine, which suggests the food may be exposing us to harmful chemicals, according to a study released today.

The scientists tested the food packaging for fluorine, an indicator they contain highly flourinated chemicals, also known as PFAS or PFCs. Such chemicals have a nifty ability to resist grease and stains. But they also can migrate from the packaging into the food and have been linked to cancer, development and immune system problems, low birth weights and decreased fertility.

A sampling of the packages confirmed that some indeed did use highly fluorinated chemicals, including PFOA, a toxic chemical that U.S. manufacturers voluntarily agreed to phase-out in 2011.

The study adds to growing evidence that grabbing a bagel before work, a quick burger at lunch, or a pizza for dinner might expose you and your family to the harmful chemicals.

“Perfluorinated compounds come from a variety of consumer products, and clearly the food wrapping materials likely constitute an important source," said Phillippe Grandjean, an environmental health researcher and professor at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, in an email.

“Limiting our current exposures should be regarded a public health priority."-Phillippe Grandjean, Harvard University “Limiting our current exposures should be regarded a public health priority," added Grandjean, who was not involved in the study.

Researchers tested about 400 pieces of food packaging from 27 fast food chains in 2014 and 2015. The samples included popular spots such as McDonald's, Burger Kind, Taco Bell, Chick-Fil-A. They also tested, and found the compounds at places people might not think of fast food, such as Jimmy John's, Quiznos, Starbucks and Dunkin' Donuts.

The restaurants were in or around Boston, Seattle, Washington DC, San Francisco, and Grand Rapids, Mich.

In total, 33 percent of the packages contained fluorine. The presence of fluorine doesn't automatically mean the packaging contains the highly fluorinated chemicals of concern. However, it's “the most likely reason," said Laurel Schaider, a research scientist at the Silent Spring Institute, and lead author of the study published today in Environmental Science & Technology Letters.

“Normally paper by itself doesn't have fluorine in it, so seeing fluorine in these packages is a really strong indicator there are PFAS in them to make them grease, oil resistant," Schaider said.

About half of the paper wrappers (what a burger or a pastry would come in) and 20 percent of paperboard samples (pizza boxes, French fry containers) had fluorine. The test wasn't terribly sensitive for fluorine, Grandjean said, “so the fact that one-third of the samples had detectable levels of fluorine compounds is likely an underestimation."

Schaider and colleagues more closely examined 20 samples to tease out exactly what fluorinated compounds they had. Six out of the 20 more rigorously tested packages contained PFOA, also known as C8, infamous for contaminating people from the DuPont Washington Works facility near Parkersburg, West Virginia.

3M, a major manufacturer of stain-resistant coatings and additives, phased-out PFOA in 2008, however, other countries still produce it and many of the replacements haven't been thoroughly tested for potential health impacts.

The World Health Organization deems PFOA a possible carcinogen, and the U.S. National Toxicology Program considers PFOA and PFOS likely toxic to developing immune systems.

Previous research suggests that highly fluorinated chemicals can migrate from food packaging into the food. “The extent of migration depends on what type of food, how greasy it is, how long it's in contact with paper," Schaider said.

Highly fluorinated chemicals are also used in products such as upholstery, waxes, non-stick cookware, and carpeting. They migrate out of products and degrade very slowly — showing up in air, household dust, water, dirt, wildlife and people.

Almost everyone in the U.S. has these chemicals in their blood, and some of them can stay in the body for years.

David Andrews, a senior scientist at the nonprofit Environmental Working Group and study co-author, pointed out the positive—more than half of the packages tested did not have fluorine. “There is strong evidence that alternatives do exist," he said.

The study authors recommend avoiding take out foods, or asking fast food restaurants and state representatives to get the harmful chemicals out of packaging.

“We want [restaurants] to evaluate and eliminate these chemicals and the FDA to adequately test the substitute chemicals for health effects," Andrews said.

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