The nonstick coatings known as perfluorinated compounds (PFCs), an object of increasing concern because of their evident health hazards and increasing ubiquity in everything from household dust to drinking water, are also widely present in fast-food wrappers.
About 40 percent of the food-contact packaging collected from 27 fast-food chains in 2014 and 2015 carried a key indicator of PFC content, according to research published this morning in Environmental Science & Technology, a peer-reviewed journal of the American Chemical Society. And that figure may actually understate the actual presence of PFCs.
The chains examined ran the gamut from Arby’s to Taco Bell, and the test locations ranged across the country from Boston to Seattle and San Francisco. Except for a very few outfits where only a few samples were collected, all the companies were using packaging that contained the PFC marker.
That marker was fluorine, which a new screening technique has made quicker, cheaper and easier to detect than the PFCs themselves, which require a more complicated analysis. And while fluorine can be present for other reasons, researchers report that further testing of fluorine-positive packaging samples found “a vast majority” to contain PFCs.
Moreover, as co-author David Andrews explained to me, the fluorine screening can also understate actual PFC presence, since some samples that came through the screen as negative for fluorine later tested positive for one or more PFCs, including some varieties that are no longer manufactured in the U.S. and have been banned from food-contact packaging.
The group of chemicals known as PFCs is a large one, and includes the compounds that have been at the root of concern over health risks in the drinking water of certain Washington County suburbs, as well as other metro communities affected by an underground plume from operations of the 3M Corp., a longtime manufacturer and distributor of the chemicals.
Though PFCs have been linked to cancers, endocrine disuptions, birth defects and other health damage, they have also been commonly used to coat paper for burger wrappers, pizza boxes and french-fry bags; their resistance to both oil and water makes them kind of ideal for the job. Earlier research has suggested that exposure to heat and grease may actually help the coatings move from the wrapper to its contents.
Nor is concern about potential health risks associated with some of them — especially the Teflon component PFOA, for perfluorooctanoic acid — especially new.
Burger King said in 2002 that it would stop using any PFC-coated papers, and McDonald’s pledged to move from PFOA-coated products to alternatives. Ultimately the U.S. Food and Drug Administration banned three PFOA compounds from food-contact papers effective last January, and two compounds based on PFOS (perfluorooctanesolfonic acid, formerly a Scotchguard component) in November.
However, the new research shows that these compounds still show up in food-contact packaging, including Burger King’s. It also demonstrates, as Andrews explained to me, that development of the fluorine screening technique will allow other researchers to test more easily for PFCs in a variety of exposure scenarios.
The intention was to establish a proof of concept, to demonstrate its effectiveness with a large number of samples from different sources. And, yes, the idea is that this could be applied to potentially other environmental screening in the places where PFCs are suspected to be used — everything from clothing, some cosmetics, tablecloths treated to be greaseproof … and it just goes on from there.
Andrews is a senior scientist on the staff of the Environmental Working Group, which has long advocated for better regulation of toxic chemical exposure in realms from pesticides to cosmetics to cleaning products. Other scientists working on the study represented academic institutions and regulatory agencies, including the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the California Department of Toxic Substances Control.
‘Shot in the dark’ for consumers
I asked Andrews how he felt the new work broadens our knowledge of PFC exposure:
This has a few interesting parts. One is that every fast-food chain where we tested more than six samples, all the major ones, had at least one that tested positive for fluorine on its paper products. I don’t think any fast-food chain is necessarily better than any other, there’s no indication of that.
On the other hand, close to 50 percent of our samples overall did not have detectable fluorine. So it’s really a shot in the dark for consumers.
I also asked why, if the problem is people getting a side of PFCs with their cheeseburgers, nobody seems to be testing the PFC content of the fries instead of the packet they’re served in.
Ultimately, yes, you do want to know how much is ending up in your food and thus ending up in your body, but my guess is that the fluorine test isn’t sensitive enough because of the complexity of food and the migration of chemicals through different layers.
Also, many of these PFCs are so ubiquitous in our environment that if your tests are sensitive enough, you’ll find them everywhere. So you wouldn’t necessarily know how they were getting into the food.
EWG has prepared a separate report on the research and the policy issues it raises, and so I also spoke with Bill Walker, who produced it, about how his group assesses the importance of the new findings.
Testing on the entire suite of perfluorinated chemicals shows evidence of harm at ever-lower levels. We’re not necessarily talking about low, short-term exposures causing cancer, but Phillipe Grandjean at Harvard has shown that even small exposures, at critical windows of development for unborn babies, can result in compromised immunity, a higher risk of being obese as adults, and the list goes on and on.
So to be clear, we’re not saying that somebody who eats a hamburger a week from a wrapper coated in this stuff is going to develop cancer next year. But we are concerned that perhaps a pregnant woman who eats at a fast-food restaurant through the nine months of her pregnancy might be exposing her child to something that compromises future health.
Like Andrews, he feels that the food chains’ decisions to continue using PFC coatings — in the former of newer, “shorter-chain” versions — amounts to placing faith in an unproved solution. The argument is that the smaller molecules will pass more quickly out of the body rather than accumulating, he said, but
They’re still persistent in the environment, and another concern is that because they are shorter-chain, they may also be more difficult to filter out of drinking water in treatment plants, and may also leach out of products, and migrate into your body, more readily.
As for alternatives, Walker noted that there are non-PFC papers with coatings that perform well as food wrappers, some manufactured in America. And in Denmark, after a PFC scare prompted a huge pizza-box recall, a manufacturer discovered that the boxes could be made greaseproof and waterproof without any additives at all — just by boiling the cellulose longer in the papermaking process.
And that matters because PFCs, as environmental contaminants of extraordinary persistence, raise concerns beyond human health. Indeed, the study considers the possibility that some wrappers containing PFCs may never have been coated, but were made with pulp from papers that were coated, used, discarded and recycled — still carrying the chemicals.
Now there’s a big sustainability movement toward compostability, and these papers are certified as compostable. Yet these chemicals don’t break down in the environment, not under any normal conditions that a compost pile will ever be in.
So I think this raises important questions not only for consumers but for the companies — that they should be doing more to ensure not only the safety but also the sustainability of their packaging.
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