A new report on popular fast food chain food wrappers revealed the presence of toxic PFAS chemicals, in spite of recent widespread awareness of the risks to public health. PFAS are considered a health hazard and a danger to the environment.
Called per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS), these chemicals are used to make food wrappers resistant to seepage of liquid and grease.
The testing was conducted through the Mind the Store campaign in collaboration with Toxic-Free Future, and performed in February 2020 by an independent laboratory.
Food wrapper samples were collected from six popular fast food chains in three states, from a total of 16 fast-food locations. Of the 38 individual food wrappers tested, nine of them were duplicates and 29 were unique samples.
5. Food Wrapper Test Results
The report stated that “Nearly half of all food packaging samples tested positive for fluorine above the screening level, including for fast food favorites such as McDonald’s Big Mac, Burger King’s Whopper, and Sweetgreen’s salads and warm bowls.”
The Sweetgreen chain is promising to phase out all PFAS by the end of 2020, and has begun rolling out a PFAS-free version of their serving bowls in one location.
Food wrappers for side items like French fries, cookies, and chicken nuggets all tested positive for PFAS.
4. Worldwide Use of PFAS
As explained by the EPA, PFAS are man-made, manufactured around the world, and include a variety of chemicals like GenX (a trademarked non-stick coating), PFOA (perfluorooctanoic acid) and PFOS (perfluorooctane sulfonate). The most widely used PFAS chemicals (PFOS and PFOA) are difficult to break down and destroy in the body and in the environment.
PFAS are used for a variety of purposes, in addition to food packaging. These chemicals can be found in non-stick cookware, cleaning products, paints, stain-resistant fabrics, and foams used for fire-fighting. Many different protective coatings on products like pizza boxes contain PFAS chemicals.
3. The Health Risks of PFAS
The EPA states that most of us are exposed to PFAS every day, and that “exposure to PFAS can lead to adverse health outcomes in humans.” Testing of animals exposed to PFAS have resulted in the growth of tumors. The EPA warns that these and other studies “indicate that PFOA and PFOS can cause reproductive and developmental, liver and kidney, and immunological effects in laboratory animals.”
PFAS exposure can also lead to increased cholesterol levels, a challenged immune system, thyroid hormone disruption (related to PFOS chemicals) and cancer linked to PFOA chemicals.
2. How Do PFAS Get into Food from Fast Food Packaging?
In an interview published by Technology Networks, Dr. Katherine C. Hyland of SCIEX explained that PFAS can leach into foods from contact with toxic food wrappers. Dr. Hyland says that “accidental consumption due to food contact” with PFAS chemicals actually exposes people to “a wider range of chemical constituents than is typically considered for environmental samples.” This is because PFAS in food wrappers — also called food contact materials (FCM) — have a wider range of chemical classes than some other PFAS exposure sources.
In a nutshell, that means food wrapped in PFAS packaging can absorb a variety of toxic chemicals just by being in contact with the packaging itself.
1. Efforts to Eliminate PFAS from Food Packaging
In California, Berkeley and San Francisco enforce bans on PFAS in food packaging, as do the states of Maine and Washington. Beyond these initial efforts in America, Denmark’s ban on PFAS chemicals in paper and cardboard food packaging launched in July 2020.
The food wrapper testing report also indicated that some positive change is happening little by little among American fast food burger chains. Of the burger wrappers tested, only one of them showed fluorine content above the screening level that indicates the paper was treated with PFAS. This is an improvement over previous years, and a sign that some chain restaurants are taking at least small steps toward eliminating PFAS from their food packaging.Related: 10 Poisons Consumed Daily