New research based on nationwide tests shows that many fast food chains still use food wrappers, bags and boxes coated with highly fluorinated chemicals. The Environmental Working Group's (EWG) report supplements a new peer-reviewed study in the journal Environmental Science & Technology Letters, which shows some of the test samples contained traces of a notorious and now-banned chemical formerly used to make DuPont's Teflon.
Scientists from nonprofit research organizations including EWG, federal and state regulatory agencies and academic institutions collaborated to collect and test samples of sandwich and pastry wrappers, french fry bags, pizza boxes and other paper and paperboard products from 27 fast food chains and several local restaurants in five regions of the U.S. They found that of the 327 samples used to serve food, collected in 2014 and 2015, 40 percent tested positive for fluorine, a likely indicator of the compounds known as PFCs or PFAS chemicals.
EWG, from L. Schaider et al., Fluorinated Compounds in U.S. Fast Food Packaging. Environmental Science and Technology Letters, February 2017.
"Fluorine-based coatings are used in food packaging to repel grease," said David Andrews, Ph.D., EWG senior scientist and co-author of the EWG report and the peer-reviewed paper. "There is very little public information on how much leaching occurs, as there are lots of different types of coatings made with this family of chemicals. Our tests show they are not necessary, because there are PFC-free food wrappers readily available."
Perfluorinated chemicals or PFCs and PFASs, have been linked to cancer, developmental issues, reproductive harm, compromised immune systems and other health effects. Although some PFCs, such as those formerly used to make Teflon and 3M's Scotchgard, have been banned or phased out as hazardous, chemical companies have flooded the market with a new generation of PFCs that have not been adequately tested for safety.
FDA Bans Three Chemicals Linked to Cancer From Food Packaging https://t.co/uvHztUu86z @HuffPostGreen @greenpeaceusa— EcoWatch (@EcoWatch)1452032710.0
"We don't know enough about the safety of the new generation of PFCs," said Bill Walker, EWG managing editor and co-author of the report. "We know there are dangers of exposure to some of these chemicals at extremely low doses, especially during critical windows of child development. A woman who eats fast food frequently during her pregnancy might consume enough of these chemicals to affect the future health of her child."
DuPont has acknowledged that one of these replacement chemicals does cause cancerous tumors in lab animals. And some of these fluorinated chemicals are migrating from the packaging to food; hot, greasy food actually increases the likelihood of migration.
"It's concerning that people could be exposed to these toxic chemicals through the food they eat," said Dr. Laurel Schaider, an environmental chemist at Silent Spring Institute and the study's lead author. "PFASs have been linked with numerous health effects including cancer. Children are especially at risk because their developing bodies are more vulnerable to toxic chemicals."
"These molecules are very long-lived in the environment and simply don't break down easily and go away," said Graham Peaslee, a physicist at the University of Notre Dame, who discovered a new application method that allows faster analysis of materials that may contain fluorinated chemicals. "Consumer products like papers that are treated with PFAS will decompose long before the treatment does and these chemicals will enter the environment directly from our landfills. This type of long-lived chemical just isn't a sustainable practice: once it is made, it doesn't go away."
National fast food brands source paper from different suppliers, who in turn collect paper from different sources.
"Up and down the line there needs to be a greater level of concern," said Walker. "We're not pointing the finger at the fast food chains or saying it's safer to eat at one chain compared to another. It's possible they're not getting the straight story from their suppliers. This is a snapshot that shows there's a problem and both the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the restaurant industry should address it."
EWG's recommendations include:
- Fast food companies should stop using PFCs or other fluorinated compounds in sandwich or pastry wrappers, fried food containers, pizza boxes or anywhere else where they may come into contact with food. Parent companies should exercise more oversight over their supply chains and the paper sources of their franchises.
- The FDA should further restrict the use of fluorinated chemicals in food or food-contact materials. The FDA should close the loophole that allows companies to self-certify chemicals as Generally Recognized as Safe.
- For consumers, exposure to PFCs in food wrappers can be reduced by eating fresh foods and preparing meals at home. Avoid the use of paper tableware and microwave popcorn. For more tips on how to keep these chemicals out of your body and your home, see EWG's Guide to Avoiding PFCs.
Each product featured here has been independently selected by the writer. If you make a purchase using the links included, we may earn commission.
The bright patterns and recognizable designs of Waterlust's activewear aren't just for show. In fact, they're meant to promote the conversation around sustainability and give back to the ocean science and conservation community.
Each design is paired with a research lab, nonprofit, or education organization that has high intellectual merit and the potential to move the needle in its respective field. For each product sold, Waterlust donates 10% of profits to these conservation partners.
Eye-Catching Designs Made from Recycled Plastic Bottles
waterlust.com / @abamabam
The company sells a range of eco-friendly items like leggings, rash guards, and board shorts that are made using recycled post-consumer plastic bottles. There are currently 16 causes represented by distinct marine-life patterns, from whale shark research and invasive lionfish removal to sockeye salmon monitoring and abalone restoration.
One such organization is Get Inspired, a nonprofit that specializes in ocean restoration and environmental education. Get Inspired founder, marine biologist Nancy Caruso, says supporting on-the-ground efforts is one thing that sets Waterlust apart, like their apparel line that supports Get Inspired abalone restoration programs.
"All of us [conservation partners] are doing something," Caruso said. "We're not putting up exhibits and talking about it — although that is important — we're in the field."
Waterlust not only helps its conservation partners financially so they can continue their important work. It also helps them get the word out about what they're doing, whether that's through social media spotlights, photo and video projects, or the informative note card that comes with each piece of apparel.
"They're doing their part for sure, pushing the information out across all of their channels, and I think that's what makes them so interesting," Caruso said.
And then there are the clothes, which speak for themselves.
Advocate Apparel to Start Conversations About Conservation
waterlust.com / @oceanraysphotography
Waterlust's concept of "advocate apparel" encourages people to see getting dressed every day as an opportunity to not only express their individuality and style, but also to advance the conversation around marine science. By infusing science into clothing, people can visually represent species and ecosystems in need of advocacy — something that, more often than not, leads to a teaching moment.
"When people wear Waterlust gear, it's just a matter of time before somebody asks them about the bright, funky designs," said Waterlust's CEO, Patrick Rynne. "That moment is incredibly special, because it creates an intimate opportunity for the wearer to share what they've learned with another."
The idea for the company came to Rynne when he was a Ph.D. student in marine science.
"I was surrounded by incredible people that were discovering fascinating things but noticed that often their work wasn't reaching the general public in creative and engaging ways," he said. "That seemed like a missed opportunity with big implications."
Waterlust initially focused on conventional media, like film and photography, to promote ocean science, but the team quickly realized engagement on social media didn't translate to action or even knowledge sharing offscreen.
Rynne also saw the "in one ear, out the other" issue in the classroom — if students didn't repeatedly engage with the topics they learned, they'd quickly forget them.
"We decided that if we truly wanted to achieve our goal of bringing science into people's lives and have it stick, it would need to be through a process that is frequently repeated, fun, and functional," Rynne said. "That's when we thought about clothing."
Support Marine Research and Sustainability in Style
To date, Waterlust has sold tens of thousands of pieces of apparel in over 100 countries, and the interactions its products have sparked have had clear implications for furthering science communication.
For Caruso alone, it's led to opportunities to share her abalone restoration methods with communities far and wide.
"It moves my small little world of what I'm doing here in Orange County, California, across the entire globe," she said. "That's one of the beautiful things about our partnership."
Check out all of the different eco-conscious apparel options available from Waterlust to help promote ocean conservation.
Melissa Smith is an avid writer, scuba diver, backpacker, and all-around outdoor enthusiast. She graduated from the University of Florida with degrees in journalism and sustainable studies. Before joining EcoWatch, Melissa worked as the managing editor of Scuba Diving magazine and the communications manager of The Ocean Agency, a non-profit that's featured in the Emmy award-winning documentary Chasing Coral.