A new study has shown that more than one-third of greaseproof fast food wrappers are still coated in perfluorinated chemicals (PFCs) despite the fact that the FDA banned three of these compounds from food containers last January.
“If you eat at a fast food restaurant in the United States, you simply don't know whether the paper that your food is served in contains PFC coatings or not,” explains Bill Walker, Vice President and Managing Editor of the Environmental Working Group (EWG), which released a report associated with the study today.
Forty percent of 327 samples of grease-resistant paper containers from the 27 fast food chains tested in the peer-reviewed study were shown to contain fluorine, which the researchers say is an "extremely likely" indicator of the presence of PFCs.
“There's almost no other explanation for the presence of fluorine other than the fact that there are PFCs,” says Walker.
Testing for fluorine as an indicator for PFCs is a new technique developed by one of EPA’s leading scientists, Graham Peaslee, Professor of Experimental Nuclear Physics at the University of Notre Dame.
Walker calls this technique a "breakthrough," noting that before its development, the "long and cumbersome" tests for PFCs made it difficult to ascertain just how widely used these chemicals are.
The researchers did further test a smaller number of samples using the older, slightly more reliable technique. “The results seemed to confirm that most of the samples that had fluorine would indeed end up having PFCs,” says Walker.
The study authors also noted that some samples contained perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA), one of the most dangerous PFCs.
“The levels that were detected were very low, leading us to speculate that this was not actually from the coating, but it might have well been because the paper was somehow contaminated by contact with other materials containing PFCs,” explains Walker.
In 2006, an EPA Science Advisory Board said that PFOA, formerly used by DuPont to make Teflon, is “likely to be carcinogenic to humans,” and a 2012 independent science panel funded by DuPont reported “probable links” between PFOA exposure and testicular and kidney cancer. This chemical has been shown to have toxic effects even in small doses.
While PFOA has been taken off the market, the FDA has approved 20 next-generation PFCs specifically for paper used to serve food.
“These chemicals have not been adequately tested for safety, and trade secrecy laws mean that, in some cases, the limited safety data submitted to EPA does not publicly disclose the identity of the specific chemicals or even the companies submitting them for approval,” explain Walker and Dave Andrews, Senior Scientist.
The chains tested in the study include Arby's, Burger King, Chipotle, KFC, McDonald's, Panera, Pizza Hut, and Starbucks.
While most of the chains did test positive for PFCs, Walker stresses that EWG is not pointing fingers at the restaurants themselves.
“This is an issue of transparency in the supply chain,” he explains. “Some of the suppliers might be saying that they have PFC-free papers when in fact, all it means is that they no longer have papers with the two chemicals that have been phased out: PFOA and PFOS.”
According to the scientists, paper made partly from recycled materials with PFCs may still contain these dangerous chemicals.
EWG is asking fast food restaurants to investigate their supply chains and use a paper supplier that is reliably free of PFCs, such as the three that EWG identified “very easily” through research.
The study was performed by scientists from nonprofit research organizations including the Environmental Working Group, federal and state regulatory agencies, and academic institutions including Notre Dame and the University of California at Berkeley.
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