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A new study indicates fast food wrappers and packaging commonly have toxic chemicals known as per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS), which are known to buildup in the body and may increase the risk of cancer or other health problems.
The findings were published this week in the report “Packaged in Pollution” by ReusableNYC, which is a group involving more than 40 environmental and consumer watchdog organizations. It warns that many national fast food restaurant chains use PFAS in wrappers and containers.
PFASs chemicals are most commonly found in firefighting foam, which has been widely used since the 1960s during training exercises and in response to certain fuel based fires. However, the chemicals have also been found in food packaging materials, pizza boxes, popcorn bags, fabrics, nonstick cooking pans, and other product.
The chemicals are known to take a long time to breakdown, potentially leading to long-term buildup risks, and have been linked to a number of health concerns among firefighters and individuals residing in areas around military bases or other locations where the firefighting foam was regularly used during training exercises.
In this latest study, researchers looked at 38 food packaging samples from 16 locations for six fast-food chains across three states. The researchers tested the samples for fluorine exceeding the screening levels.
According to the findings, nearly half of the samples tested positive for high levels of fluorine, a sign of the presence of PFAS. The researchers found that all bags used for side items, like French fries and cookies tested positive. All of the molded fiber packaging used by salad chains tested positive as well.
However, the researchers also found that only one of the burger wrappers, from Burger King, from seven burger chains tested positive for PFAS; all the rest have switched to PFAS-free paper to wrap their burgers. However, in the case of McDonald’s, while its paper burger wrappers were PFAS free, its cardboard burger containers were not.
The study’s authors urge consumers not to try to recycle these items in composting bins, as that may lead to further contamination of soil and water.
“Today, millions of U.S. residents are drinking PFAS-contaminated water and nearly 100% are carrying a body burden of PFAS,” according to the press release by Safer Chemicals, Healthy Families. “With their remarkable persistence and mobility in the environment, PFAS move through soil to drinking water.”
PFAS were first introduced into the manufacturing industry in the 1940’s, because of their ability to resist heat, grease, stains, and water. However, since then exposure to PFAS chemicals have been linked to a myriad of adverse health effects including liver damage, thyroid disease, decreased fertility, high cholesterol, obesity, hormone suppression, and cancer.
In June 2019, a federal investigation found that PFAS chemicals are commonly found in numerous food products, including meats, seafood, chocolate, cake and other products. However, the FDA released a statement indicating that the levels found do not raise health concerns, based on the best available science.
A number of chemical manufacturers face a growing number of PFAS firefighter foam lawsuits in federal courts nationwide, which are centralized in the U.S. District Court for the District of South Carolina for pretrial proceedings. Plaintiffs say exposure to the chemicals have led to cases of cancer among military and civilian firefighters, and among those who live in communities whose water supplies have been contaminated.