Forever Chemicals in Your Take Away Packaging

Fast food and take away food have long been criticized for its detrimental effects on health, but recent findings suggest that the problem might extend beyond what’s on the menu to the very packaging that contains these quick bites. 

A study conducted on fast food and take away packaging has revealed the presence of perfluorinated compounds (PFCs) or “Forever Chemicals”  in over a quarter of the samples analyzed, raising serious concerns about their potential health impacts.

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The “Forever Chemicals” in your Take-Away Packaging

A recent French study shows that 4 out of the 14 packaging items (McDonald’s, Burger King, Domino’s Pizza) analyzed contain significant amounts of PFCs. In these 4 cases, the packaging is made of paper. PFCs in food packaging are used to make them waterproof, oil-resistant, and heat-resistant. Since these packages come into direct contact with greasy and especially hot foods, the risk of these chemicals migrating into the food is significant.

List of tested food packaging:

  • Cardboard packaging
  • Pizza boxes
  • Burger boxes
  • French fries pouch
  • Nugget box
  • Popcorn pouch
  • Paper packaging
  • Cookie bag
  • Muffin collars
  • French fries bag
  • Burger paper
  • Popcorn pouch
  • Hot sandwich bag

Another study collecting around 400 samples of food contact papers, paperboard containers, and beverage containers from fast food restaurants in the U.S. found that 46% of paper wrapping and 20% of cardboard containers contained detectable fluorine, indicating the presence of PFASs.

Health concerns associated with PFCs

Perfluorinated compounds (PFCs) in fast food and take away packaging pose significant health risks due to their potential to leach into food and be ingested. These compounds, specifically per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFASs), have been linked to various health issues, including cancer, developmental toxicity, immunotoxicity, and reduced fertility. 

More and more epidemiological data shows a significant or probable link between PFCs, notably PFOA and PFOS, and cancers of the testicles and kidneys, liver damage, thyroid issues, and hormonal imbalances.” says Arlene Blum, director of a chemistry research institute at the University of Berkeley (California).

Recent research published in the reputable journal Plos Medicine by an American team followed 621 obese or overweight individuals on a diet for two years. Those with the highest levels of PFCs in their blood were more prone to regaining weight. The study suggests a potential impact of perfluorinated compounds on weight regulation, metabolism, and the broader obesity epidemic.

Studies have shown that exposure to PFASs can lead to thyroid disease, immune suppression, low birth weight, decreased fertility, and increased cancer risk. Additionally, PFASs are associated with abnormal development in children, thyroid and cholesterol problems, and immune system dysfunction. 

The persistent nature of these chemicals means they can migrate from packaging into food, especially in hot and greasy foods, increasing the risk of exposure. The presence of PFASs in fast food packaging materials like paper wrappers, cardboard containers, and boxes raises concerns about the potential health consequences of consuming food that has come into contact with these harmful compounds1234.

What are some other sources of PFC exposure besides food packaging ?

Besides food packaging, other sources of exposure to perfluorinated compounds (PFCs) include water, indoor and outdoor air, breast milk, and dust. At least 45% of the nation’s tap water is estimated to contain PFAS, with a study by the U.S. Geological Survey testing for 32 types out of more than 12,000 4. More than 200 million people may be drinking PFAS-tainted water, highlighting the widespread nature of the contamination 4.

PFAS contaminates water supplies primarily through firefighting foam and industrial releases, with the U.S. military being a significant user of PFAS-containing foam in training exercises at bases nationwide 1.

PFCs can also be found in meat and dairy products due to animals being exposed to air, water, and feed contaminated with PFCs. 

These compounds can also be present in non-food items like paper plates, bowls, nonstick floss, nonstick pots and pans, and microwave popcorn bags. 

Overall, PFC exposure can occur through various pathways beyond food packaging, highlighting the widespread presence of these harmful chemicals in our environment and everyday products.

How are PFAS regulated in the US?

Efforts have been made at both the national and state levels to address the risks associated with PFCs. 

For instance since January 1, 2023, no person can legally distribute, sell, or offer for sale in California any food packaging that contains regulated PFAS. California has emerged with some of the strictest consumer product regulations of PFAS in the country. 

In February 2024, EPA released two proposed regulations under the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA) to protect communities from PFAS and other emerging chemicals of concern.

But more needs to be done as 97% of Americans have PFAS in their blood according to data from the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES) reported by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention 2.

At least 475 industrial facilities may be discharging PFAS into the environment, with no current restrictions under the federal Clean Water Act or the Clean Air Act on these discharges 5.

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