February 22, 2019
Fun in a bun
Health News

Dangerous Chemicals in Fast-Food Packaging

by Jeanine Barone  

Ever wonder why all the grease in fast food doesn’t just soak right through the box and paper packaging used to wrap it? The answer is a creation of the chemical industry called grease-repellant fluorinated compounds, which came into use in the 1940s. These chemicals not only repel grease but are also non-stick, water-repellant, and stain-resistant—in short, a fast-food packaging dream. But they might not be so miraculous when it comes to our health, research has shown. And while some fluorinated compounds have been banned for food-related uses, others remain in wide circulation at fast-food chains—exposing us and the environment to potentially dangerous chemicals, a new report has revealed.

Historically, the most commonly used type of fluorinated compounds were a class called PFCs, or perfluorinated chemicals. The FDA banned their use in food-related products in 2016, after studies (mostly in animals) linked the chemicals with health problems, including kidney cancer and thyroid disease. They did not, however, ban other fluorinated chemicals that may present similar health hazards. These continue to be widely used in fast-food packages, according to the new research, published in Environmental Science & Technology Letters.

For the study, scientists from the nonprofit Environmental Working Group and other institutions and government agencies analyzed 407 fast food packages from more than two dozen fast food chains. One-third of the packages contained fluorinated chemicals, with sandwich wraps and pastry bags the most likely to contain them (46 percent of samples). Next highest were pizza and French fry boxes, at 20 percent, followed by juice and milk containers (16 percent). More troubling, many samples touted as containing nonfluorinated alternatives in fact contained fluorinated chemicals.

What you can do

Earlier studies have found that fluorinated chemicals can migrate from the wrap into the food, depending on variables such as the food’s temperature and how long it sat in the wrapping. They can also leach into the environment from the discarded packages. To reduce your exposure if you eat fast food, remove the item from the packaging as soon as possible or ask that it be served in alternative packaging, such as a paper cup or the outer paper bag used for take-out food.

Also see 5 Dangerous Chemicals in Cosmetics.