We’re all well aware of the unhealthy nature of most fast food, frequently high in salt, saturated fats and added sugars. Now it appears that there is another cause for concern: the wrappers used to package that food. These paperboard boxes or waxy wrappers, designed to repel water and grease, are often impregnated with fluorinated chemicals that may be toxic. This is worrisome, not just due to health consequences for humans, but also for the potential environmental impact after disposal, when these chemicals may leach into soil and groundwater.
A recent study, Fluorinated Compounds in U.S. Fast Food Packaging, released in the February 2017 issue of Environmental Science & Technology Letters, tested wrapping materials using particle-induced gamma ray emission spectroscopy to detect the presence of fluorine.
The researchers positively identified the synthetic chemicals, per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) in about half the samples of food wrapping. After testing over 400 samples, Laurel A. Schaider et al. identified PFAS in 56% of dessert and bread wrappings, 38% of sandwich and burger wrappers, and 20% of the paperboard containers (such as french fry or fried chicken boxes or pizza boxes), as shown in the illustration (above) from their research paper. Their testing included wrappers from food chains such as Carl’s Jr., Dunkin’ Donuts, McDonald’s, Pizza Hut, Subway, Wendy’s and Taco Bell. In contrast, paper cups showed negligible levels of PFAS.
Note that their research did not investigate whether these chemicals are transferred to the food products themselves. This question warrants further investigation. Yet, PFAS have been consistently detected in samples of human blood. For further background, see the EPA’s Research on Per- and Polyfluoroalkyl Substances (PFAS).
These manmade organic molecules, PFAS, or more generally, perfluorinated chemicals (PFCs), are chains consisting of carbon and hydrogen, where fluorine atoms substitute for hydrogen. Teflon is an example of a perfluorinated compound. The strong flourine-carbon bond gives the molecules their stability, resistance and durability. Because they do not easily degrade or break down readily, the substances tend to persist in the environment.
These compounds are found in many surfactants, such as nonstick coatings on cookware, as well as protective, stain-resistant coats applied to carpets, upholstery and waterproof clothing. They may be in some dental floss and cosmetics, as well as microwave popcorn bags. They are essential in foams used to fight fires. Their use in outdoor gear, such as Gore-Tex, has been opposed by Greenpeace in their Detox campaign — for hikers and snowboarders inadvertently slough off residues into pristine wilderness areas, as well as into urban sewage during laundry. See Greenpeace’s Chemistry for any weather: Tests of outdoor clothes for perfluorinated toxins.
Animal studies have linked exposure to PFAS to reproductive and developmental problems, as well as obesity, decreased fertility, suppressed immune function and increased risk of cancer. PFAS have been associated with changes in hormone levels, as well as altered liver, thyroid and pancreatic function. PFAS also tend to bioaccumulate, or build up in the body over time.
Dave Andrews, of the Environmental Working Group, reports that, “The FDA has approved 20 next-generation PFCs specifically for coating paper and paperboard products used to serve food. These chemicals have not been adequately tested for safety, and trade secrets mean that, in some cases, the limited safety data submitted to the EPA does not publicly disclose the identify of the specific chemicals or even the companies submitting them for approval.” Greater transparency is called for, particularly involving our food supply and packaging.
An unfortunate episode exposed humans living in Parkersburg, West Virginia to elevated levels of fluorinated chemicals during the 1990s, when leaks from a nearby DuPont factory allowed chemicals to enter the public water source. An extensive article, Welcome to Beautiful Parkersburg, West Virginia, by Maria Blake, discusses this episode in detail.
After cows and children in the Parkersburg area starting becoming severely ill — and “the water in the creek turned black and foamy” — a federal lawsuit was filed in 1999. DuPont factory workers frequently reported bouts of nausea and vomiting, which they referred to as “Teflon flu.” Further investigation revealed that the chemical giant, DuPont, had dumped thousands of tons of sludge containing perfluoro-octanoic acid (PFOA) onto a nearby landfill as well as into unlined pits which fed into the town’s drinking supply. DuPont’s own research had found that the chemicals were linked to birth defects, cancer and liver problems in animals. DuPont paid a fine, settled a class action suit and established filtration plants in nearby water districts. And there are still thousands of personal injury suits awaiting trial. Note that DuPont has rigorously denied all charges of wrongdoing. The Teflon Toxin: DuPont and the Chemistry of Deception, by Sharon Lerner in The Intercept, provides a more thorough look at the environmental and legal issues of this case.
Some fast food restaurants switched to the paper-based wrappings in an attempt to be more ecologically sensitive and reduce reliance on the environmentally unfriendly styrofoam containers. As evidence has accumulated, over two hundred scientists from around the world recently demanded curbs on the use of fluorinated compounds, in order to limit their release into the environment. In the Madrid Statement, the European Union has taken steps to regulate and restrict the use of fluorinated compounds.
Further toxicology testing is needed and greater industry regulation is required, though that is unlikely with the current U.S. administration. The FDA should intervene to impose tighter restrictions on the use of fluorinated compounds in consumer products. We also need more extensive investigation to identify safer alternatives. Greater public awareness can enable people to exert pressure on manufacturers and restaurants — and to make more informed consumer choices.