Diet & Nutrition

Harmful Chemicals in Fast Food Packaging Can Leach into Food

Here is yet another reason to resist the temptation to indulge in fast food. The greaseproof packaging holding your burger and fries may contain potentially harmful fluorinated chemicals that can leach into food. That is the finding of a study done at the Silent Spring Institute in Newton, MA and published February 1st 2017 in the journal Environmental Science & Technology Letters.

A release from the institute notes that in the most comprehensive analysis to date on the prevalence of highly fluorinated chemicals in fast food packaging in the United States, the researchers tested more than 400 samples from 27 fast food chains throughout the country. The samples, consisting of paper wrappers, paperboard, and drink containers, were analyzed for a class of chemicals called PFASs (per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances), also known as PFCs. These highly fluorinated chemicals are widely used in an array of nonstick, stain-resistant, and waterproof products, including carpeting, cookware, outdoor apparel, as well as food packaging.

The release quotes Laurel Schaider, an environmental chemist at Silent Spring Institute and the study’s lead author, as saying, “These chemicals have been linked with numerous health problems, so it’s concerning that people are potentially exposed to them in food.” Exposure to some PFASs has been associated with cancer, thyroid disease, immune suppression, low birth weight, and decreased fertility. “Children are especially at risk for health effects because their developing bodies are more vulnerable to toxic chemicals,” says Schaider. Approximately one third of children in the U.S. consume fast food every day.

Reporting, the researchers applied a novel technique using particle-induced gamma-ray emission (PIGE) spectroscopy to analyze the samples for fluorine — a marker of PFASs. The team found that almost half of paper wrappers (e.g., burger wrappers and pastry bags) and 20 percent of paperboard samples (e.g., boxes for fries and pizza) contained fluorine. Tex-Mex food packaging and dessert and bread wrappers, in particular, were most likely to contain fluorine compared with other categories of packaging.

To characterize the different types of PFASs present and to validate their analysis, the researchers conducted a more detailed study on a subset of 20 samples. In general, samples that were high in fluorine, also contained PFASs. Six of the samples contained a long-chain PFAS called PFOA (perfluorooctanoic acid, also known as C8). Following a review by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, in 2011 several major U.S. manufacturers voluntarily agreed to stop using C8 compounds in food packaging due to health hazards.