Researchers have discovered that fast food wrappers may contain dangerous levels of chemicals called per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances. These chemicals can easily leach into food and are connected to a number of health problems, including thyroid disease and certain forms of cancer. Some of the fast food chains sampled weren’t even aware that the chemicals were present in their food wrappings. The findings are in a paper that was just published in the journal Environmental Science & Technology Letters.
Fluorinated chemicals called per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFASs) are compounds typically used to make products nonstick, stain-resistant, or waterproof. Some examples of products that utilize PFASs are nonstick frying pans, waterproof jackets, and mattresses. The chemicals are persistent in the environment and don’t naturally break down. Most PFASs are no longer produced in the United States but can be found in imported goods since many other countries continue to use the chemicals. PFASs are capable of migrating great distances, even through the air, and past research has showed that they can leach into food. This is a problem because PFASs have been linked to kidney cancer, testicular cancer, developmental toxicity (including low birth weights), immunotoxicity, and thyroid disease.
Scientists from the University of Notre Dame collaborated with a number of other institutions to conduct a large-scale study on the presence of PFASs in fast food wrappers. PFASs can be used to make nonstick wrappers yet fast food containers had never been tested for the chemicals. The team took samples from food wrappers at 27 fast food chains, including McDonald’s, Burger King, Chick-Fil-A, Starbucks, and Chipotle. The head researcher, Graham Peaslee, had developed a technique called particle-induced gamma-ray emission spectroscopy to measure fluorine content in solids. By analyzing the food wrappers with this method, the researchers could determine if the packaging contained PFASs. The team detected PFASs in 56% of bread and dessert wrappers. They also found PFASs in 38% of sandwich wrappers, including burger packaging, and 20% of paperboard. When the team interviewed some of the fast food chains in question, the chains weren’t even aware that their food packaging contained PFASs. Most of the fast food chains didn’t respond to further questions.
The team’s results show that PFASs are prevalent in fast food packaging across a number of restaurant chains. Since the chemicals have been linked to serious medical problems, this issue may represent a major public health risk. The research team hopes that their findings will encourage fast food chains to consider nontoxic food packaging.
Schaider et al. Fluorinated Compounds in U.S. Fast Food Packaging. Environmental Science & Technology Letters (2017).