Potentially dangerous chemicals found in fast-food wrappers, researchers say

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 02 February, 2017, 1:12pm
UPDATED : Thursday, 02 February, 2017, 8:55pm

For more than three decades, fast-food chains have relied on the chemical industry to keep grease and oil from soaking through burger wrappers, french fry cartons and pizza boxes.

Few questioned the safety of the specially coated food packaging until the early 2000s, when lawsuits uncovered the history of a class of chemicals that were widely used in consumer goods with practically no government oversight.

Researchers slowly began to realise that many of those compounds, known as perfluorinated chemicals (PFCs), break down in people’s bodies to a chemical called PFOA that lingers in the bloodstream for years. Other studies determined that PFOA can cause cancer, damage the liver, trigger reproductive problems and scramble hormones during critical stages of development.

It turned out food wrappers were a major source of exposure. Under oath, a former DuPont chemist described how customers ingested the chemicals every time they ate a french fry.

McDonald’s, Burger King and other chains pledged to stop using the chemicals, and manufacturers began to phase them out. Last year, the US Food and Drug Administration banned the use of three PFCs in food packaging.

But some fast-food restaurants continue to rely in part on grease-resistant packaging made with structurally similar chemicals that remain largely unknown to independent researchers, many of whom are concerned about potential health risks.

lected from McDonald’s, Burger King, Starbucks and other restaurants contained fluorine, a key building block in PFCs. Some contained traces of PFOA, one of the chemicals banned by the FDA.

The study, published Wednesday in the peer-reviewed journal Environmental Science & Technology Letters, highlights the long, often difficult process of identifying new chemicals in the marketplace and determining if they can cause harm. It also raises questions about corporate branding. McDonald’s and Burger King, for instance, have promoted their packaging as “PFOA-free,” meaning it doesn’t contain banned PFCs.

Fluorine, however, was detected in samples collected from both chains — indicating companies have embraced chemicals related to PFOA.

“We just don’t know enough about the safety of these new chemicals,” said David Andrews, a senior scientist at the Environmental Working Group who co-authored the study with researchers from federal and state agencies, universities and other nonprofit organisations. “Since there are other options out there, this should be a wake-up call for these companies.”

PFOA and related chemicals were used for decades to make Teflon, the nonstick coating pioneered by DuPont, and thousands of other products that resist stains, grease and water. Manufacturers say their replacements, described as “short-chain” because they contain fewer fluorine-carbon bonds than PFOA, offer the same benefits but leave the body faster and are considerably less toxic.

“Any further regulation of modern-day short-chain food packaging materials is unnecessary and would provide no further benefits to human health or the environment,” the American Chemistry Council, the industry’s chief trade group, said in a statement.

Fast-food chains couldn’t immediately be reached for comment. When researchers attempted to find out if they were aware of PFCs in their packaging, two unnamed companies said they believed their packaging was PFC-free even though it wasn’t, according to the study.

Many of the wrappers and cartons tested did not contain the chemicals. The study’s authors suggested that could indicate restaurants obtain packaging from different suppliers, some of which use alternative methods to make paper grease-resistant.

The presence of PFOA, the banned PFC, in some packaging could have come from recycled paper, researchers said.

Several environmental scientists pointed to a replacement chemical developed by DuPont as an example of a questionable alternative. In documents submitted to the Environmental Protection Agency between 2006 and 2013, DuPont reported the chemical, branded as GenX, caused some of the same health problems in laboratory rats that PFOA does, including cancer and reproductive problems. Company scientists downplayed the findings by saying they weren’t relevant to humans, echoing what DuPont had said earlier about PFOA.

“If we can all agree that PFOA is hazardous, but then we test its replacements with basically the same assays that gave it a ‘passing grade,’ aren’t we missing something?” said Laura Vandenberg, a researcher at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst who was not involved in the new study.

More research is needed on the potential hazards of short-chain PFCs at levels similar to how people might be exposed to the chemicals, Vandenberg and others said. But that work can take years, in part because the identities of many chemicals are considered trade secrets and manufacturers aren’t required to tell the FDA or EPA when they are used in food packaging or other products.