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Study finds fluorinated chemicals in fast food packaging

Image used with permission from Environmental Science and Technology Letters.

A new study found fluorinated chemicals in one third of the fast food packages researchers tested. The chemicals keep oil and grease from leaking through.

The researchers found that out of 407 food packages tested, 46% of food contact papers and 20% of paperboard contained fluorinated chemicals.

Scientists have found this class of chemicals doesn't break down in the environment, and some kinds of fluorinated chemicals are linked to health problems.

Arlene Blum is the executive director of the Green Science Policy Institute and is a visiting scholar in chemistry at the University of California-Berkeley. She's one of the study's authors.

She says we're exposed to highly fluorinated chemicals in many other products, including carpeting and clothing, where the chemicals are used for their stain and water repelling properties. Blum says previous research has shown fluorinated chemicals can migrate from packaging and get into food.

“This is just one more exposure, and a much more direct one, because you’re actually eating the chemicals,” she says.

So what do we know about these chemicals?

Blum says that of the 3,000 chemicals in this family, there are at least 90 approved for use in fast food packaging. She says we don't know much about most of them. But there has been a lot of research on one of these chemicals, called PFOA.

“PFOA was phased out in 2015 and then replaced with a whole lot of others where we don’t know much,” says Blum. “But in terms of PFOA, exposures have been linked to kidney and testicular cancer, to elevated cholesterol, decreased fertility, and changes in hormone functioning in adults. And then in children, to adverse developmental effects and decreased immune response to vaccines.”

Blum says six of the packaging samples they studied contained PFOA, even though U.S. manufacturers agreed to stop distributing products containing the chemical in 2011.

"We think it's likely that some of these products are made outside the U.S. where PFOA hasn't been phased out. It is still used in Asia, where a lot of fast food packaging is made," she says.

Advice for consumers

Blum says if you want tominimize exposure to fluorinated chemicals, you can avoid grease-proof wrappers and microwave popcorn, the two kinds of packages most likely to contain the chemicals.

"Two-thirds of what we studied did not contain these chemicals, which means they're not needed."

"Two-thirds of what we studied did not contain these chemicals, which means they're not needed. And the hope is that the companies who make fast food will make public decisions to stop using them, which would really be a great thing," she says.

Blum says some companies, including IKEA, Crate & Barrel and Levi Strauss, have announced they're eliminating all highly-fluorinated chemicals from their products.

She says because fluorinated chemicals are found in an array of products, you can also choose textiles and carpeting that don't say they're water and stain repellant, and avoid personal care products with words containing "perfluor," "polyfluor" or "PTFE" on the label.

Lynn Dyer, president of the Foodservice Packaging Institute, sent this statement by email:

I can tell you that for foodservice packaging that requires a barrier coating, “short chain” fluorochemicals are used today, so it’s no surprise that the study would find these chemicals. 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. I would also note that some fluorochemical-free products have been introduced since this study was conducted in 2014 and 2105 [sic], so there are now several different FDA-approved options to provide oil, grease and/or water resistance. The packaging industry is always innovating to meet the needs of their customers, while following the strict guidelines set forth by the FDA. I have also been asked by others why six items were found to have PFOA… it’s my understanding that PFOA is no longer used in the US, Japan and the EU. It’s possible those six products were manufactured in a country that still uses PFOA. However, they would still be subject to FDA regulations if being sold in the U.S.

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Rebecca Williams is senior editor in the newsroom, where she edits stories and helps guide news coverage.
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