Scientists found fluorinated chemicals in about a third of take-out food packaging samples tested, according to an academic paper released earlier this week by the journal Environmental Science & Technology Letters.
Previous research has shown these chemicals can migrate from packaging into the food that customers eat.
The nine authors of the paper included scientists from the Environmental Protection Agency, the California Department of Toxic Substances Control and the Environmental Working Group.
Contaminants were found in food contact materials at almost every national chain. Of 407 samples taken from fast food chain outlets in five states, more than 33 percent were contaminated with per- or polyfluorinated substances, also known as PFAs. Contamination was most common in food contact paper, where 46 percent of 248 samples tested positive. The substances detected are very similar in composition and chemical structure to those that were found to contaminate well water in the Fountain Valley in 2016.
In January 2016, the CSBJ reported that wells supplying water to 80,000 residents of Fountain, Widefield and Security were contaminated with highly toxic long-chain perfluorinated substances.
Thanks to actions by water providers, the Colorado Department of Health and Environment, the U.S. Air Force, the Environmental Protection Agency and Colorado Springs Utilities, the wells were eventually shut down and replaced with uncontaminated water from the Southern Delivery System. The Air Force is paying for homes with private wells to be equipped with filters.
The contaminants had migrated into groundwater in the Fountain Valley from foam used in firefighting exercises at Peterson Air Force Base.
Even in minute quantities, PFAs can be dangerous, scientists say.
“Fluorinated chemicals are used to give water-repellant, stain-resistant and non-stick properties to consumer products such as furniture, carpets, outdoor gear, clothing, cosmetics, cookware and even food packaging materials,” said the Green Policy Institute. “The most studied of these substances has been linked to kidney and testicular cancer, elevated cholesterol, decreased fertility, thyroid problems and changes in hormone functioning in adults, as well as adverse developmental effects and decreased immune response in children.”
But despite the risks associated with per- and polyfluorinated substances, they are still widely used in commercial and industrial applications — something these scientists believe should end.
“We should question putting any fluorinated materials into contact with food,” said Dr. Arlene Blum of the University of California Berkeley and the Green Science Policy Institute, an author of the study. “Given the potential for harm, we must ask if the convenience of water and grease resistance is worth risking our health.”
Other authors said they were surprised to find the chemicals so widely used.
“I was very surprised to find these chemicals in food contact materials from so many of the samples we tested,” said Graham Peaslee, an University of Notre Dame physicist who developed a technique for rapidly screening materials for the presence of fluorinated chemicals. “These chemicals are persistent and some bioaccumulate in the body, and there are safer non-fluorinated alternatives available.”
And in the press release, other authors say its time to end the use of the chemicals in fast-food packaging.
“We don’t want to drink these chemicals in our water, nor do we want to eat them in our food,” said lead author Laurel Schaider of Silent Spring Institute. “The use of fluorinated chemicals in fast food packaging is of great concern since millions of Americans, including children, eat fast food every day.”
Some countries, like Denmark, have already ended use of the chemicals for packaging.
“At the Danish Coop [Denmark’s largest retailer], due to concerns about health, these chemicals were phased out from food packaging and textiles in 2015,” said another study co-author Philippe Grandjean, a professor at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. “It’s time for the U.S. to consider following the Danish lead.”
The scientists said the most harmful chemicals aren’t used, but many chemicals related to them still are widespread in American products.
“Although several fluorinated chemicals found to be harmful are no longer used, dozens of related ‘chemical cousins’ are replacing them,” explains Tom Bruton of UC Berkeley and the Green Science Policy Institute. “Like the older substances, these new fluorinated compounds do not break down in the environment and may be similarly toxic.”
Blum and Grandjean were among the signatories of the “Madrid Statement,” a manifesto signed by hundreds of scientists worldwide calling for the complete phase-out of long-chain PFAs in manufacturing worldwide.
Will the United States follow Denmark’s lead and ban the use of such substances?
The Colorado Department of Health and the Environment and the Environmental Protection Agency did not return phone calls prior to the release of the study.