Fast food has been heavily criticized from a nutritional standpoint because it tends to be high in saturated fats, salt, and calories. Now scientists have identified another way that fast food consumption might affect your health: through potentially harmful chemicals in the packaging.
In a recent study, scientists from nonprofit organizations, academic institutions, and government agencies, conducted the first comprehensive analysis on the prevalence of highly fluorinated chemicals in fast food packaging in the United States, testing more than 400 samples from 27 common fast food chains. The samples, consisting of paper wrappers, paperboard, and drink containers, were analyzed for a class of chemicals called per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFASs), including PFOA (perfluorooctanoic acid). PFOA is one of the three chemicals scientist are investigating in the Early Life exposures in Latina Adolescents (ELLA) study.
The researchers 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, a marker of PFASs. “These chemicals have been linked with numerous health problems, so it’s concerning that people are potentially exposed to them in food,” says Laurel Schaider, an environmental chemist at Silent Spring Institute and the study’s lead author. “Children are especially at risk for health effects because their developing bodies are more vulnerable to toxic chemicals,” she says.
Exposure to some PFASs has been associated with cancer, thyroid disease, immune suppression, low birth weight, and decreased fertility. PFASs are also endocrine disrupting chemicals (i.e. chemicals that interfere with the body’s system of hormones), which has implications for breast cancer.
When analyzing which particular PFASs were present in fast food packaging, the researchers found some samples contained PFOA. In the ELLA study, researchers are investigating whether exposure to PFOA during puberty leads to changes in the breast that could increase a young girl’s chances of developing breast cancer later in life. Adolescence is a critical period in life when the body is particularly vulnerable to chemical exposures.
Although major U.S. manufacturers voluntarily agreed in 2011 to stop using PFOA in food packaging due to health hazards, the new analysis shows these compounds are still showing up. Many companies have substituted PFOA with shorter-chain PFAS compounds, some of which were detected in the study. “Yet, the replacement compounds are equally persistent and have not been shown to be safe for human health,” says co-author Dr. Arlene Blum, founder of the Green Science Policy Institute.
In addition to food packaging, highly fluorinated chemicals are widely used in an array of nonstick, stain-resistant, and waterproof products, including carpeting, cookware, and outdoor apparel. Want to reduce your exposure to highly fluorinated chemicals? Visit the resources section on the ELLA website for tips in English and Spanish.
You can read the full peer-reviewed article here.
In addition to Schaider and Blum, the team included Graham Peaslee at the University of Notre Dame, Simona Balan at the California Department of Toxic Substances Control, David Andrews of Environmental Working Group, Mark Strynar of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s National Exposure Research Laboratory, and Johnsie Lang at Oak Ridge Institute for Science and Education.