Study Finds PFOA-Related Chemicals In Fast Food Packaging

Feb 2, 2017

A national study has found that a chemical related to the one that's polluted water in Bennington is still being used in fast food wrappers.

The industrial chemical PFOA, which has contaminated about 270 private wells in Bennington, has been phased out, but manufacturers are still using fluorinated chemicals related to it.

Researchers looked at food packaging across the country and found that about one-third of the paper and containers contain fluorinated chemicals, which have been linked to a number of adverse health conditions.

The study was conducted by scientists from Silent Spring Institute, the University of Notre Dame, the Environmental Working Group, the Environmental Protection Agency and Green Science Policy Institute.

Arlene Blum is a visiting scholar in chemistry at the University of California, Berkeley, and she co-authored the study that found the highly-fluorinated chemicals in the fast food packaging.

Blum says that while scientists recognize the health threats posed by PFOA, there is even less known about the fluorinated chemicals in the fast food packaging.

"The replacement is a series of chemical cousins that are very similar," Blum says. "They never break down in the environment, not for millions of years. And there's limited health information on the replacements. But there are causes for concern that they could share a lot of the qualities of PFOA."

Fluorinated chemicals help make paper grease- and stain-proof. In Bennington, where state officials believe the PFOA now turning up in residents' drinking water originated at a factory owned by the company Saint-Gobain, PFOA was used to make fabric waterproof. The chemical was also used to make Teflon, which is a nonstick surface.

Medical studies have linked the chemicals to kidney and testicular cancer, elevated cholesterol, decreased fertility, thyroid problems and changes in hormone functioning in adults, as well as adverse developmental effects and decreased immune response in children.

“I was very surprised to find these chemicals in food contact materials from so many of the samples we tested,” said Graham Peaslee, a physicist at the University of Notre Dame who developed an innovative new technique called PIGE that rapidly screens materials for the presence of fluorinated chemicals.

"These chemicals are persistent and some accumulate in the body, and there are safer non-fluorinated alternatives available," he says.

In addition to fast food packaging, the chemicals were also found in microwave popcorn and pizza boxes.

The scientists detected levels of fluorinated chemicals in more than half of the dessert and bread wrappers they tested, and in almost 40 percent of the sandwich and burger wrappers.