CHICAGO – For more than 3 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 realize 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 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.
In a new study, a third of the samples collected 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 organizations. “Since there are other options out there, this should be a wake-up call for these companies.”
However, the the American Chemistry Council, the industry’s chief trade group, said in a statement that “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,”
Fast-food chains couldn’t immediately be reached for comment. When researchers attempted to find out whether 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.