The negative side effects of eating a lot of fast food are well-documented. Eating it consistently can lead to obesity, and the quality and nutritional value of fast food are generally agreed upon to be lower than that of foods prepared at home.
New analysis conducted by the nonprofit Silent Spring Institute, however, suggests that harm from fast food can have another source: the packaging. In the study, published today in Environmental Science and Technology Letters, the authors say they tested over 400 samples of fast food packaging from 27 chains in the U.S., including paper, paperboard, and beverage containers that all make contact with food. They tested the samples for Per- and Polyfluoroalkyl Substances, known as PFAs, a large group of man-made chemicals in production since the 1950s. These chemicals are known to build up in the bloodstream, and though their affects have been studied in animals, scientists are not really sure how they affect human beings. They’re found all over the place and are widely in use. Concern about their prevalence has risen in the past decade.
Because PFAs are so widespread, it is perhaps unsurprising that the study found them in 56 percent of bakery paper and bread wrappings, 28 percent of burger wrappers, and 20 percent of the paperboard they tested.
The lead author of the study, Laurel Schaider, an environmental chemist at Silent Spring Institute, said, “These chemicals have been linked with numerous health problems, so it’s concerning that people are potentially exposed to them in food.” Though the full extent of their effects is still undetermined as of yet, scientists have found that they are potentially most harmful to children and developing fetuses. PFAs travel through blood, breast milk, and are resistant to water, grease, and heat, making them hard to get rid of once they’re around. A government website suggests they can “affect the developing fetus and child, including possible changes in growth, learning, and behavior,” that they may decrease fertility, increase cholesterol, affect the immune system, and increase the risk of certain cancers. So you know, no big deal. The website also has “no specific” recommendations for people who want to decrease their exposure to the chemicals, because, well, they’re everywhere.
Fast-food makers have widely agreed to phase out certain PFAs deemed most likely to cause harm in their packaging, but the study finds that they have seemingly been replaced with others. There are, the report says, non-fluorinated alternatives already currently available, which means that companies that choose to could produce packaging without the potentially harmful chemicals.