The Danger of Fast Food Wrappers and Forever Chemicals

 

Forever chemicals have been increasingly in the news, both because of recent efforts to impose new classifications on them as a class, and greater awareness of just how pervasive and dangerous the chemicals are. So what are forever chemicals? They are chemicals composed of strong bonds between carbon and fluorine and known as PFAS (per and poly-fluoroalkyl substances) that were designed in a lab in 1938. They are known as forever chemicals because their bond is so strong that they last “forever”- meaning decades or even centuries in nature and up to 8 years in our bodies. Yes, you heard that right- in our bodies. The CDC estimated in 2021 that 95% of us have PFAS in our bodies. PFAS have been used in thousands of products in the last decades, and are interwoven with our industrial economy. There are thousands of different PFAS compounds ranging in use from non-stick pans, waterproof gear, and anything else that needs to be resistant to heat, water, oil, and corrosion. These chemicals have been found in most water supplies and are easily uptaken by the human body. While some uses of PFAS chemicals seem unlikely to disappear, since there may be no readily replaceable alternatives, or they may be used in critical components of essential industries, there are other uses of the substances that could be banned or avoided.
This is particularly true of any container holding food for human (or animal) consumption, given how easily the substances are absorbed into the human body. This is concerning because of research into the types of damage that may be caused by ingesting PFAS chemicals. The CDC notes that studies have shown that PFAS may cause increased cholesterol levels, decreased vaccine response in children, changes in liver enzymes, increased risk of high blood pressure or pre-eclampsia in pregnant women, increased risk of kidney or testicular cancer, and decreases in infant birth weights. Other studies have shown risks to the endocrine system, the kidneys, and as a source of oxidative stress. Since PFAS lasts so long in the human body, since there are so many sources of pollutants, and since the concentration in the body increases with every exposure, there is every likelihood that more serious injury to the body could occur. It’s also difficult to track the specific chemicals as well, just because most techniques don’t work that well for many of them, and there are more than 9,000 different PFAS, all with their own chemical signature. Making specific studies on each is cost prohibitive, and almost impossible, so exactly which are the most problematic is hard to understand. What is known is that as a class of chemicals they have exhibited potential danger. Luckily, since total organic fluorine is traceable in a product, and it is rare in nature, tests for fluorine can be used to assess PFAS content so as to help avoid those products. The problem is someone taking the time to assess various products.

There is also a difference in PFAS uptake from accidental exposure, like small amounts from drinking water, and direct exposure from using a Teflon-coated pan or a beverage container coated with the chemicals. Consumer Reports pointed out one of the more avoidable but shocking uses of the substances, which is in fast food wrappers and containers. They went on to independently test wrappers and containers from various fast food outlets. They found that a number of food wrappers and containers contained high levels of PFAS. How much is too much? That is open to debate- California has banned intentionally added PFAS, and any products with above 100 parts per million organic fluorine. Denmark has set the level at 20 ppm. The EPA has a certification program, and to be certified a product has to have less than 100 ppm. Various studies have placed recommendations between 20 and 100ppm, but remember PFAS accumulates over time in the human body. Consumer Reports supports a level of 20 ppm.
“Consumer reports tested multiple samples of 118 products and calculated average organic fluorine levels for each. Overall, CR detected that element in more than half the food packaging tested. Almost a third-37 products- had organic fluorine levels above 20ppm, and 22 were above 100ppm” Some chains had multiple products at high levels, some had none, but most were mixed, with only a few products above recommended levels. Some retailers who have been claiming to be phasing out PFAS were still found to contain them- sometimes at high levels. Because PFAS is so pervasive, you probably shouldn’t believe claims that something is 100% PFAS-free. What you can try to do, however, is minimize exposure.
Here are the wrappers/containers that were found by CR to have the highest ppm levels:

Nathan’s Famous bag for sides (Green Stripe) 876ppm
Nathan’s Famous bag for sides (Red Stripe) 618ppm
Chick-fil-A Wrapper for sandwich wrap 553.5ppm
Cava Fiber Tray for Kid’s Meal 548ppm
Cava Fiber Bowl for grains and salads 508.3ppm
Arby’s Bag for cookies 457.5ppm
Stop and Shop paper plates (Bamboo) 368.7ppm
Burger King bag for cookies and French Toast Sticks 345.7ppm
Sweetgreen paper bag for focaccia 288ppm
Cava wrapper for mini pita and pita sandwich 280ppm
Cava bag for pita chips 260ppm
McDonald’s bag for french fries 250.3ppm
McDonald’s bag for cookies 250ppm
Burger King wrapper for Whopper 249.7ppm
Stop and Shop paper plates (grease resistant) 226.7ppm
McDonald’s bag for Chicken McNuggets 219ppm
Cava wrapper for pita 202ppm
McDonald’s container for Big Mac 195.3ppm
Trader Joe’s bakery box for pancake bread 167ppm
Burger King bag for chicken nuggets 165ppm
Taco Bell paper bag for chips 145ppm
Nathan’s Famous wrapper for sandwich 104ppm
Panera Bread container for flatbread pizza 82ppm
Kroger baking cups 51.3ppm
Nathan’s Famous container for hamburger 42ppm
Panera Bread bag for baguette 35.7ppm
Chipotle fiber bowl with four compartments 35.5ppm
Panera Bread wrapper for sandwich 30.3ppm
Roy Rogers foil-lined wrapper for hamburger 29ppm
Checkers container for french fries 27ppm
Chipotle wrapper for burrito 26.3ppm
White Castle container for clam strips 26ppm
Hannaford bakery plate under cake 23.3ppm
Stop and Shop tray for thin crust extra cheese pizza 23ppm
Stop and Shop baking cups 22ppm
Whole Foods Market container for soup 21ppm

Remember that these were relatively random samples of just 118 products from a variety of fast food products. It is likely that there are many more beyond this list. There were some establishments that did pretty well, and even the restaurants that had wrappers and containers that performed poorly mostly had a number of products with low or undetectable levels of PFAS. Here are some of the establishments that fared well:

Five Guys- All products were either undetectable for PFAS or under 10ppm
Freshii- Fiber bowl for salad had 16.7ppm and wrappers had 9.7ppm
Popeyes- Both the bag for french fries and bag for sandwich were under 10ppm
Shake Shack- All 4 containers tested had 10.5ppm or less
Smashburger- Undetectable in two products, 9.5ppm in wrapper for breakfast sandwich
Wendy’s- Except for the hamburger wrapper at 16.7ppm, the rest 10.3ppm or lower

If PFAS are everywhere, how should you limit your risk?

  1. Limit your consumption of fast food- which includes take-out and convenience foods sold in supermarket aisles.
  2. Support retailers who have pledged to limit PFAS. Not only are you more likely to have a decreased level of PFAS in your packaging, but if you vote with your wallet you’re more likely to get other retailers on board with limiting PFAS.
  3. “Eco-friendly” or “Environmentally Safe” products are not the same as “PFAS free”. Consumer Reports notes that they found at least some fluorine in every one of the products that made those claims, and some had over 100ppm.
  4. Don’t store your food in take-out packaging. The longer the food sits in the packaging, the more PFAS leach into the food itself, particularly in fatty and salty foods- which much fast food tends to be.
  5. Don’t reheat food in take-out packaging. Heating the food in the containers is also likely to increase the leaching of the PFAS from the container to the food.
  6. Check your water. Because the use of PFAS is so widespread and used in so many different products, they are widespread in the water supply and even in bottled water. Water treatment facilities don’t have particular technology employed to extract PFAS, although new research has shown they may be easy to break down there with iodide and ultraviolet light (Science New, May 20, 2022). For now, use a water filter that filters PFAS, and check online for PFAS reports on bottled water, like here.
  7. Limit your exposure to other sources of PFAS. Some other products have high levels of PFAS, like water-repellent clothing, some non-stick pans, stain-resistant carpets, some cleaning products, personal care products, shampoos, and microwave popcorn bags for example.
  8. You can’t always know for sure about a particular product’s PFAS content, but Consumer Report also analyzed types of take-out containers for their average content of PFAS. Paper bags were the worst, at 192.2ppm on average, followed by molded fiber bowls and trays at 156.8ppm, single-use plates at 149ppm, food wrapper/liners at 59.2ppm,
    baking/cooking supplies at 22ppm, paperboard/cardboard containers at 19.9ppm, bakery/deli paper at 17.2ppm, paper trays at 15ppm, and takeout containers at 5.6ppm. Choose to avoid the products with higher average ppms.
  9. Consider increasing fiber in your diet. Although PFAS are difficult to remove from the body, some very good recent studies have demonstrated that fiber binds to PFAS to some extent and flushes it out of the body. Lower amounts of PFAS were found in serum after the consumption of a fiber-rich diet.

Forever chemicals are worrying, and research is continuing on how to decrease their presence in the body. For now, avoiding unnecessary exposure is the best way to go. Prevention should be at the cornerstone of every health plan. The systems of the body are complex and connected in many ways to each other. Your health is a system, and focusing on keeping that system running smoothly by making sure that the body is supported rather than just tinkered with is at the root of the Progressive Medical philosophy.