Feb. 1, 2016 -- The next time you get a muffin with your coffee or pick up a hamburger at a drive-thru, you could also be getting a side of chemicals that have a poor safety and environmental record, a new study shows.
Researchers tested more than 400 samples of bags, wrappers, boxes, and cups from 27 fast-food and fast-casual restaurant chains in the U.S. in 2014 and 2015.
Many of these kinds of paper packaging and paperboard containers are laced with per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, or PFASs, they found.
PFASs, also called fluorinated chemicals, are a big class of more than 3,000 widely used chemicals that make things grease- and stain-resistant. The problem is, the substances don’t break down over time. That means they build up in the environment and in our bodies.
They have been linked to a variety of human health issues, including cancers, reproductive problems, immune system damage, and high cholesterol. These typically happen when people are continuously exposed to small amounts over long periods of time.
“There are some studies showing that they come off on the food, so you’re basically eating them, and that’s not a good idea,” says study author Arlene Blum, PhD, a visiting professor at the University of California, Berkeley, and the executive director of the Green Science Policy Institute.
One-third of all the samples, or 33%, tested positive for PFASs, according to the study. Bread and dessert wrappers were the most likely to have them -- about half tested positive. Burger wrappers were second -- 38% of those tested had PFAS. About 1 in 5 paperboard containers, like the boxes that hold french fries, also tested positive. Paper cups seemed to be in the clear -- none tested positive for PFAS.
Perhaps most concerning, during a second test to confirm the results in 20 containers, six containers tested positive for PFOA, or C8, a chemical that was once a major component of Teflon nonstick coating.
PFOA is a specific kind of PFAS. For safety reasons, the EPA asked manufacturers to stop making it in the U.S., and last year, the FDA officially banned it in food packaging used in this country. But PFOA is still being made in other countries, like China. The study authors say it’s not clear exactly how PFOA ended up in some of the food packaging they tested, but it’s not a good sign.
In the U.S., at least, companies have since replaced PFOA with different kinds of PFASs.
These replacement PFASs have many of the same properties -- they make things fireproof, waterproof, and grease- and stain-resistant. The biggest difference seems to be that they help the body clear them more quickly. Companies say that makes these replacements safer.
The study authors disagree. Blum says that because we are constantly exposed to these chemicals through food packaging and other sources, we always have some in our bodies, so it doesn’t matter how fast the body can eliminate them.
Packaging Expert Says They're Safe, Cites Testing
A food packaging expert says the findings of the study aren’t that surprising and are not cause for alarm.
“These, like all packaging products, go through rigorous testing to ensure that they meet stringent U.S. Food and Drug Administration regulations, providing the safe delivery of foods and beverages to consumers,” says Lynn Dyer, president of the Foodservice Packaging Institute, a trade association for the food packaging industry based in Falls Church, VA.
Food companies are supposed to notify the FDA before they introduce a new chemical into food packaging, but the FDA doesn’t conduct its own studies to determine whether the chemical is safe. Instead, the agency relies on companies to do their own safety testing.
While less is known about newer PFAS chemicals, there are early signs that they may have some of the same problems as the chemicals they replaced.
In at least one case, journalist Sharon Lerner -- writing for The Intercept -- uncovered company documents, submitted to the FDA, suggesting that one of the newer PFAS chemicals may have some of the same problems as PFOA.
The FDA usually doesn't comment on individual studies, but it did say in a statement that it had “carefully reviewed” the available science on next generation PFASs and “has not identified safety concerns about the use of these compounds.”
The statement goes on to say: “The agency continues to review emerging science as it becomes available and will take action as needed to protect public health.”
Concerns About Pregnancy, Immunity
Other recent research has shown:
- Women with higher levels of PFASs in their blood were far more likely to miscarry a pregnancy, compared with women who have lower levels.
- Several studies showed that healthy adults and children with higher levels of PFAS chemicals in their blood didn’t get the same protection from vaccines as those with lower PFAS levels, an indication that these chemicals my suppress immune responses.
- The chemicals can cross the placenta in pregnancy and concentrate in breast milk, making breastfeeding another way mothers can pass these chemicals to babies.
“Some effects appear to occur even at the very lowest levels of exposure,” says Philippe Grandjean, MD, PhD, who teaches environmental health science at Harvard and is a professor at the University of Southern Denmark. He has also studied the health effects of PFAS chemicals in humans. “That means that it must be considered a public health priority to prevent these exposures.”
Since the study, Dyer says several FDA-approved, PFAS-free kinds of food packaging have come on the market.
But unless they’re labeled, it’s hard for people to know exactly what their food has been wrapped in.
To be on the safe side, the study authors say people can reduce their exposure to the chemicals by avoiding food that's been in contact with greaseproof packaging, such as microwave popcorn, some pizza boxes, take-out containers, and wraps around fast food.