Many grease-resistant fast-food wrappers and boxes contain potentially harmful chemicals that can leach into food, a new study contends.
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Testing on more than 400 samples from restaurants nationwide revealed that nearly half of fast-food wrappers and one out of five paperboard food boxes contained detectable levels of fluorine, said lead researcher Laurel Schaider. She's an environmental chemist at the Silent Spring Institute in Newton, Mass.
Previous studies have linked some fluorinated chemicals such as perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) and perfluorooctanesulfonic acid (PFOS) to kidney and testicular cancer, low birth weight, thyroid disease, decreased sperm quality, pregnancy-induced high blood pressure, and immune system problems in children, the study authors said in background notes.
Major U.S. manufacturers voluntarily phased out PFOA and PFOS for most uses starting in 2011, but other countries still produce them. These study results show that fluorinated chemicals are still widely present in food packaging, the authors said.
"One of the challenges in avoiding exposure is you can't tell by looking at a wrapper whether it contains fluorine," Schaider said. "We can choose not to purchase a stain-resistant carpet or a stain-resistant coating on our furniture. But it's difficult for a consumer to choose food packaging that doesn't have fluorinated chemicals."
As a class, fluorinated chemicals are referred to as per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFASs). They are used in a wide range of products, including carpeting, upholstery, floor waxes and outdoor apparel, the study authors said.
Some fast-food packaging is treated with PFASs to make the wrappers and boxes grease-resistant, Schaider said.
It has been found that PFASs can leach into food from packaging, Schaider said. Heat and grease appear to help the chemicals migrate into food, she added.
According to the Foodservice Packaging Institute, only "short-chain" fluorinated chemicals are still used in fast-food packaging. The "short-chain" chemicals "have been rigorously reviewed by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and found to be safe for their intended use," the industry group said in a statement.
PFOA and PFOS are "long-chain" chemicals, and have been phased out, the institute said. "Today's food service packaging is no longer treated with 'long-chain' fluorochemicals, and instead use FDA-approved 'short-chain' fluorochemicals or even newer barrier coatings, which are free of any fluorochemicals," the group added.
For the new study, the researchers said they gathered hundreds of samples from 27 fast-food chains in five metropolitan areas across the United States. They used particle-induced gamma-ray emission (PIGE) spectroscopy to analyze the samples for fluorine, Schaider said. ■
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