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Swedish Health System | Seattle, WA
Kadlec Regional Medical Center | Richland, WA
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Some fast-food packaging contains chemicals known as perfluorinated chemicals, or PFCs, that have been linked to various cancers.
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Fast-food packaging may be bad for you

Wait!

This isn’t just another article warning you about the perils of fast food. This time, we’re not out to tell you that burgers, fries and pizza are bad for you; instead, we’re here to tell you that the wrappers and boxes that contain them may be.

That’s right: Many fast food wrappers contain chemicals that can leach into your food, and then stay in your body for a long, long time. These substances, known as perfluorinated chemicals, or PFCs, have been linked to various cancers, and tests found them in all kinds of fast-food packaging, including burger wrappers, drink cups and french fry containers.

“This is a really persistent chemical,” said Graham Peaslee, a professor at the University of Notre Dame who tested the samples. “It gets in the bloodstream, it stays there and accumulates. There are diseases that correlate to it, so we really don’t want this class of chemicals out there.”

Findings from the study

Researchers from multiple agencies and institutions used gamma-ray spectroscopy, analogous to an X-ray, to detect how much fluorine was present in the fast-food packaging. They studied more than 400 samples of various wrappers, cups and containers from chains like McDonald’s, Burger King, Chipotle, Starbucks, Jimmy Johns, Panera and Chick-Fil-A. The containers were collected from five cities around the country, including Seattle.

They found evidence of fluorinated compounds called per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFASs) in:

  • 56 percent of dessert and bread wrappers
  • 38 percent of sandwich and burger wrappers
  • 20 percent of paperboard

Authors of the report said they sought to discuss their findings with the companies, but got only two responses, both claiming their packaging was free of the chemicals. That led the researchers to conclude some chains don’t know what’s in their packaging.

“This is a wake-up call for those companies and the consumers,” said Peaslee in a prepared statement.

What’s wrong with fluorinated chemicals?

PFCs and PFASs are used in products meant to resist stains and sticking and be waterproof. Because they are made with bonded compounds of carbon and fluorine, they resist breaking down, which means they can accumulate in water, soil, sediment – and the human body.

Studies have shown an association between the chemicals and kidney and testicular cancer, low birth weight, thyroid disease, decreased sperm quality and other illnesses. Because of these concerns, many manufacturers have phased out the use of some forms of the chemicals in their products.

The chemicals can migrate from wrappers into food, aided by high temperatures and the use of emulsified fats, the authors said.

If you have concerns about the food your family eats, you might compare it to the suggestions at ChooseMyPlate.gov, the site that offers nutritional guidance to consumers.

Do you have a nutrition topic you’d like us to cover? If so, leave us a note in the comments.

The study, “Fluorinated Compounds in U.S. Fast Food Packaging,” was published in the journal Environmental Science and Technology Letters. A plain-language press release describing the findings was issued by the University of Notre Dame.

Some fast-food packaging contains chemicals known as perfluorinated chemicals, or PFCs, that have been linked to various cancers.