Hold the Paper: Fast-Food Wrappers Contain Harmful Chemicals

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Nearly half of fast-food wrappers contain a man-made chemical that’s previously been linked to cancer, hormonal changes and thyroid disruption, cautions a new study.

In a review of more than 400 fast-food items from 27 chains, scientists discovered a class of substances called highly fluorinated chemicals in 46 percent of fast-food paper wrappers, like the ones that hold a burger, fries or pastry. They also found the chemicals in 20 percent of paperboard containers, which routinely hold fries and pizzas.

Credit: Evan Blaser/Flickr, CC BY 2.0

The researchers specifically tested for a class of chemicals known as perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl substances. Better known as PFCs, these highly fluorinated chemicals are used in many everyday items, including waterproof and stain-resistant materials and nonstick cookware.

However, the substances have also been tied to severe health problems, such as testicular and kidney cancer, and the scientists warn that chemicals in fast-food wrappers may “leach” onto the food products.

“These chemicals have been linked with numerous health problems, so it’s concerning that people are potentially exposed to them in food,” said lead author Laurel Schaider, an environmental chemist at Silent Spring Institute, a research consortium that studies environmental health risks.

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While scientists aren’t certain how much leaching occurs, the study brings to light a potential area of chemical contamination that most consumers are not aware of — or have never thought about.

“The prevalence of fluorinated chemicals in fast food packaging demonstrates their potentially significant contribution to dietary [PFCs] exposure and environmental contamination during production and disposal,” write the researchers in the journal Environmental Science & Technology.

A Deeply Persistent Chemical

Highly fluorinated chemicals are made of carbon-fluorine bonds, which are “some of the strongest bonds in nature,” notes the Green Science Policy Institute.

Yet while that makes for great water-repelling clothing, the impact on human physiology is less favorable. The chemicals can persist in our bodies for years, and they can last in nature for millions of years. Due to their frequent use, the chemicals are found all over the planet.

“They are ubiquitous in the environment – even in Arctic wildlife,” notes a Silent Spring Institute fact sheet on the chemicals.

Many U.S. manufacturers have begun to phase out the use of PFCs in consumer products, with some companies replacing them with shorter-chain compounds that, unfortunately, also carry health risks.

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“The replacement compounds are equally persistent and have not been shown to be safe for human health,” said study co-author Arlene Blum, founder of the Green Science Policy Institute.

“That’s why we need to reduce the use of the entire class of highly fluorinated compounds. The good news is there are non-fluorinated alternatives available,” added Blum.

Credit: Bradley Gordon/Flickr, CC BY 2.0

Based on their study, the researchers were not able to identify the precise origin of PFCs in the fast-food wrapping — some may have been treated with the chemicals, while others may have come from recycled materials.

An additional worry is that PFCs in landfills can leach into the drinking water supply, according to the researchers.

“All PFASs, including the newer replacements, are highly resistant to degradation and will remain in the environment for a long time,” said co-author Graham Peaslee. “Because of this, these highly fluorinated chemicals are not sustainable and should not be used in compostable products or any product that might end up in a landfill.”

Richard Scott
Richard Scott is a health care reporter focusing on health policy and public health. Richard keeps tabs on national health trends from his Philadelphia location and is an active member of the Association of Health Care Journalists.