Remember BPA, and how we all had to stop drinking water from BPA-containing plastic bottles? Well, it’s happening again, only this time it’s fast-food packaging, and the bad chemicals are called PFASs, which are linked with cancer, thyroid disease, low birth weight, and more. PFASs are contained in hamburger wrappers, french-fry containers, and pastry bags. Stop eating food out of those, too.
A new study has found that a significant percentage of food packaging contains PFASs, or per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, which are combinations of carbon and fluorine (and sometimes other chemicals) that are used to create nonstick surfaces, both on cookware and in packaging, where it’s able to leach into our foods. Of 400 samples tested, the team, out of the University of Notre Dame, found that more than half of dessert and bread wrappers contained PFASs, along with well over a third of all sandwich and burger wrappers. One-fifth of paperboard–used to hold fries–was “contaminated” with fluorine, but paper cups were PFAS-free.
Prior studies have shown that fluorine in food packaging can migrate into food–when used for microwave popcorn, for example. And this is a problem, because the chemicals are associated with all kinds of bad things: testicular and kidney cancer, low birth weight, thyroid disease, decreased sperm quality, hypertension during pregnancy, and immunotoxicity in children. Children are especially vulnerable, says the study, because one-third of U.S. kids eat fast-food daily, and kids may be more susceptible to the effects. (Please note that flouride, an ion of elemental fluorine that promotes healthy teeth, does not have these negative health effects).
“This is a really persistent chemical,” corresponding author Graham Peaslee told the University of Notre Dame News. “It gets in the bloodstream; it stays there and accumulates. There are diseases that correlate to it, so we really don’t want this class of chemicals out there.”
So why is food packaging loaded with potentially hazardous and toxic chemicals? Because they’re great at protecting the packaging from the food. PFASs make paper products both grease- and water-resistant. They stop the packaging from getting greasy and soggy. And they’re very good at it: PFASs are also found in “carpeting and carpet cleaners, upholstery, floor waxes, and outdoor apparel,” says the study.
When the researchers contacted the fast-food chains involved (including McDonald’s, Burger King, Chipotle, Starbucks, Jimmy Johns, Panera, and Chick-Fil-A), all but two ignored them. Those that replied said they thought their packaging was free of PFASs.
So what’s the alternative? Nobody wants a soggy burger wrapper, after all. Suggestions include waxed paper, plastic coating on food packaging, and aluminum foil. Two of those would be a nightmare, sustainability-wise, which leaves us with (recycled) waxed paper, almost like our grandparents used to use. Maybe your rustic hipster packed lunches are a great idea after all.