Aug. 8, 2019 -- Millions of people have eaten out of them: Molded fiber bowls, the popular food containers from restaurants like Chipotle and Sweetgreen.
They are supposed to be compostable and environmentally friendly, but some public health experts say the chemicals that allow these bowls to hold hot, wet, and greasy foods without falling apart are toxic to both the environment and you.
The chemicals are called per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, more commonly referred to as PFAS.
The New Food Economy, a nonprofit newsroom that does investigative reporting on “forces shaping how and what we eat,” went to eight restaurants at 14 locations in New York City -- including Chipotle, Sweetgreen, and Dig -- and tested fiber bowls used at each restaurant. All of the samples tested had high levels of fluorine, a chemical that generally indicates the bowls were treated with PFAS compounds.
In a statement to WebMD, Chipotle said: “As evidenced in Chipotle’s Sustainability Report, we are committed to using safe and sustainable food packaging and only partner with suppliers who make fluorochemical sciences and food safety a top priority. These suppliers operate under strict guidelines set forth by the FDA, and have all provided Chipotle with certification that all raw material and finished pulp products fully meet regulatory requirements.”
We spoke with Alexis Temkin, PhD., a toxicologist at the Environmental Working Group; Arlene Blum, PhD, founder and executive director of the Green Science Policy Institute and a research associate in chemistry at the University of California, Berkeley; and Green Science senior scientist Tom Bruton, PhD, and asked them to weigh in on the discussion.
Experts Weigh In
WebMD: What are PFAS chemicals?
Temkin: Per- or polyfluoroalkyl substances, known as PFAS, are a family of thousands of chemicals used to make water-, grease- and stain-repellent coatings for a vast array of consumer goods and industrial applications. These chemicals are notoriously persistent in the environment and the human body, and some have been linked to serious health hazards. PFAS mixtures, which are used in a variety of consumer products, can be found in the body of nearly every American and in the developing fetus.
WebMD: Why should we be worried about them?
Temkin: Peer-reviewed studies have linked exposure to these chemicals with weakened immune systems and lower vaccine effectiveness; low birth weights; endocrine disruption; thyroid disorders; increased cholesterol; hypersensitivity and greater risk of autoimmune diseases; and an increased risk of testicular, kidney, liver, and pancreatic cancers.
WebMD: How widespread are they, and where are they found?
Temkin: The CDC has found these chemicals in the blood of virtually all Americans. Last year, an American Red Cross study found that the blood of the average American has 4,300 parts per trillion, or ppt, of PFOS and 1,100 ppt of PFOA. (The two chemicals are types of per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances.)
These chemicals are found in upholstery treatments, carpet treatments, waterproof clothing, furniture, cosmetics, dental floss, nonstick cookware, food wrappers, sludge, food, and water.
WebMD: The New Food Economy did some testing and found PFAS chemicals in “green” molded fiber takeout bowls. Are the levels of chemicals they found cause for concern?
Blum: We don’t know the answer, but we believe that since PFAS chemicals will never break down in the environment and the ones that have been studied are toxic, we should only use them when they’re necessary, and they’re not necessary for food takeout containers.
Temkin: The results of this study help us understand where and how PFAS chemicals are used. When these bowls are composted, PFAS can contaminate the soil and potentially end up in the foods it is used on, or contaminate water, creating future exposures. There is a risk that PFAS can transfer to food in the bowls, which may be another source of PFAS exposure in the American diet.
WebMD: How dangerous are these chemicals?
Temkin: In June 2019, Linda Birnbaum, director of the National Institute for Environmental Health Sciences, suggested that the safety threshold for PFOA in drinking water should be as low as 0.1 parts per trillion, which is 700 times lower than the safety level set by the Environmental Protection Agency.
And a 2013 study by Philippe Grandjean, MD, of the Harvard School of Public Health, and Esben Budtz-Jórgensen, PhD, of the University of Copenhagen, made a recommendation for PFOA and PFOS in drinking water of 0.3 ppt. Grandjean published a case study on how regulatory guidelines and legal limits for the most-studied PFAS chemicals have decreased substantially since they first were proposed a decade ago.
Grandjean found the limits remain too high to protect health and warned against allowing widespread use of the new generation of PFAS chemicals before they are thoroughly studied for toxicity, environmental persistence, and their public health impacts. PFOA and PFOS are now banned in the U.S., but the EPA and FDA have allowed many PFAS replacement chemicals without adequate study.
WebMD: This most recent report focuses on Chipotle and a few other chains, but these products are used by many other restaurants and retailers, right?
Temkin: In 2017, scientists from nonprofit research organizations including the Environmental Working Group, federal and state regulatory agencies, and universities collaborated to test samples of sandwich and pastry wrappers, french fry bags, pizza boxes, and other food packaging from 27 fast-food chains and several local restaurants in five regions of the U.S. They found that of the 327 samples used to serve food, 40% tested positive for fluorine.
Though the presence of fluorine does not automatically indicate the presence of PFAS chemicals, an EPA expert who did more tests of the samples found that the vast majority of materials he tested contained known PFAS.
The samples that tested positive were taken from Arby’s, Burger King, Chick-fil-A, Chipotle, Church’s Chicken, Dairy Queen, Dunkin’, Jack in the Box, Jimmy John’s, KFC, Krispy Kreme, McDonald’s, Panera, Pizza Hut, Quiznos, Starbucks, Steak ’n Shake, Subway, Taco Bell, Taco Time, Wendy’s, and local restaurants. There is a table here.
WebMD: For at-home use, what is the safest type of food packaging to use -- glass, stainless steel, etc.?
Temkin: The Environmental Working Group recommends that consumers use stainless steel or cast iron cookware at home.
Bruton: Here are a number of things consumers can do to reduce their exposure to PFAS in products:
- Choose textiles and carpeting without water- and stain-repellency.
- Avoid food in contact with greaseproof packaging, such as microwave popcorn and some fast food.
- Avoid personal care products with “perfluor-“, “polyfluor-“, and “PTFE” on the label.
- Purchase cast iron, glass, or ceramic cookware rather than Teflon.
- Only purchase waterproof gear when you really need it.
- Note that “PFOA free” products often use similar chemicals instead.
Blum: Use glass and metal containers when possible.
Temkin: Avoid buying fabrics treated with nonstick chemicals such as Teflon, Scotchgard, Stainmaster, Polartec and Gore-Tex. Use stainless steel and cast iron cookware. Skip optional stain-repellant treatment on new carpets and furniture.
Exposure to PFAS in food wrappers can be reduced by eating fresh foods and preparing meals at home. Avoid the use of paper tableware, and skip the microwave popcorn.
WebMD: Plastic containers also fell out of favor for possible health effects from plastic in the chemicals. Is any type of takeout container safe from chemicals?
Blum: Reusable glass.
WebMD: Is anyone taking action to reduce our exposure to these chemicals -- government, food makers, etc.?
Blum: Our institute and other nonprofits work hard to educate decision-makers to reduce the use of these and other harmful chemicals. … The city of San Francisco and the Biodegradable Products Institute (BPI) have decided, quite logically, that to be labeled compostable, a product cannot contain PFAS. Starting Jan. 1, 2020, all BPI-certified compostable packaging must be free of these harmful chemicals. We hope this will encourage manufacturers to produce food packaging without the added flavor of PFAS.
Temkin: Members of Congress are working on the House and Senate versions of a must-pass defense spending bill, the National Defense Authorization Act for fiscal year 2020, which include provisions that would:
- Require reporting of some PFAS releases through the Toxic Release Inventory.
- Quickly end military uses of PFAS in firefighting foam and food packaging.
- Reduce industrial discharges of PFAS into drinking water supplies.
- Remediate sites with the worst PFAS contamination.