The US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) announced a voluntary phase-out of certain types of grease-proofing agents on paper and paperboard food packaging. This phase-out comes after an FDA post-market scientific review and analysis from studies found bio-persistence of the grease-proofing substances.
Food packaging, from burger boxes, wrappers and disposable bowls to bags for french fries, sides and desserts may contain potentially hazardous PFAS chemicals. These chemicals, used in food packaging at popular restaurants such as McDonald’s, Sweetgreen, and Wendy’s, help prevent grease and oil from seeping through the packaging.
The report came from the nonprofit group Toxic-Free Future, and the Mind the Store campaign, an initiative of the organization Safer Chemicals, Healthy Families. They found that nearly half of the foods that were tested came in packaging that had likely been treated with PFAS.
PFAS (per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances) are often dubbed “forever chemicals” because they’re essentially indestructible. Among the nearly 5,000 types of PFAS chemicals that have been studied, many have been linked to harmful health effects. They include decreased fertility, hormonal changes, high cholesterol levels, weakened immune system response, increased risk for certain cancers and low birth weight in infants. However, most PFAS chemicals have not been studied closely.
Understanding how PFAS chemicals get into our bodies and the environment — where they may contaminate crops and water supplies — is critical as out knowledge of their health effects come to the forefront. The need to identify the various sources of exposure cannot be overstated given the widespread use of PFAS and the emerging evidence of toxicity of many compounds.
Why PFAS in Food Packaging Is a Problem
The presence of PFAS in food packaging may not initially seem problematic to consumers because you don’t eat the wrappers. Yet PFAS are still finding their way into our bodies. PFAS were detected in nearly everyone tested in US studies involving people over 12 years old. One possible means of exposure is direct migration from packaging to food is, and some research has shown that people who tend to cook at home more often than going out may have lower levels of PFAS in their bodies.
But these chemicals aren’t limited to food packaging alone as can also be found in a wide variety of products, including some nonstick pans, waterproofing gear and firefighting foam, and they’re used to make carpets and fabrics stain-resistant. The manufacture, use and disposal of all PFAS-containing products could contribute to exposure, either directly or through environmental contamination.
Because of what happens when we dispose of food packaging, PFAS in can build up in the environment and in drinking water. The chemicals can freely migrate once they go into landfills, making their way into our food and water supply.
What the Report Found
In January 2020, the report’s authors collected 38 samples of food packaging from six fast food or fast casual chains in 16 locations in three states and Washington, D.C. An independent laboratory tested the samples. The lab looked for the chemical fluorine in each sample. Fluorine is a key component of any type of PFAS, which is why this is a common way to test for these compounds.
There was little fluorine in most burger and sandwich wrappers in the tests, an improvement from a 2017 study which found that nearly 40 percent of 138 wrappers tested contained PFAS.
The only burger wrapper that appeared to be treated with PFAS was for Burger King’s Whopper. McDonald’s Big Mac clamshell container also appeared to be PFAS-treated. Paper bags used for fries, sides or dessert items at both chains had high enough levels of fluorine to indicate PFAS treatment, as did a paper bag for a Wendy’s dessert.
At the more health-focused chains CAVA, Freshii, and Sweetgreen, every single molded fiber bowl or tray contained fluorine, indicating PFAS treatment, sometimes nine or ten times higher than the threshold used by the report’s researchers. These containers, often used in place of plastic, have been generally marketed as compostable, which gives consumers the idea that they’re eco-friendly. But PFAS doesn’t break down and can contaminate the environment.
Getting PFAS Out of Food Packaging
The sample size for this study wasn’t large enough to say how widespread the use of PFAS still is, but the study does help show that PFAS in food packaging is still a concern, especially for fiber bowls and trays.
Several other studies over the past three years have found PFAS in fast food packaging, which has helped spur market and regulatory changes. The FDA now prohibits a few PFAS chemicals in food packaging. Maine and Washington have passed restrictions on PFAS in packaging, as have cities like San Francisco and Berkeley. The New York State Legislature recently passed similar restrictions, though that bill hasn’t been signed by the governor.
At the end of July, the FDA announced that three PFAS manufacturers had agreed to begin voluntarily phasing out the use of another type of PFAS in food packaging after the agency raised concerns.