Growing pressure to remove ‘eternal chemicals’ from fast food packaging

BOSTON >> Brenda Hampton first discovered the toxic industrial compound PFAS after discovering it was part of the cocktail of contaminants tainting drinking water in her northern Alabama community.

Hampton, who believes contaminated water has contributed to the kidney problems she and other residents are suffering from, quickly learned that chemicals had been found in another source near her home – wrappers, boxes and plates fast food.

Knowing that her three daughters and eight grandchildren ate their share of burgers and fries, she joined the national fight in 2020 to ban PFAS in food packaging.

“Everyone eats fast food. Fast food is sold everywhere. No one has time to cook anymore,” said Hampton, who teamed up with environmental health advocacy group Toxic-Free Future to start a petition last year that garnered nearly 75,000 signatures. McDonald’s later announced that it would remove PFAS from all of its packaging.

Environmental and health groups are pushing dozens of fast food companies, supermarket chains and other outlets to remove PFAS chemicals from their packaging. Known as “eternal chemicals” for their persistence in the environment, they have been used for decades to keep grease, water and other liquids from penetrating through packaging, boxes and bags.

Opponents of the practice argue that the packaging poses a danger to consumers as well as the environment, as the waste ends up in landfills. in compost or is incinerated where chemicals can leach into groundwater or soil. They argue that there are safer alternatives.

Several groups argued that many major brands use packaging with PFAS and that tests have sometimes shown extremely high levels.

A 2017 study by the Massachusetts-based nonprofit research organization Silent Spring Institute found PFAS in nearly half of paper packaging and 20% of boxes at 27 fast food outlets. Toxic-Free Future testing in 2018 produced similar results. And, this year, Consumer Reports found that eight restaurants, including McDonald’s, Burger King and Cava, had packaging containing more than 100 parts per million fluoride, indicating the likely presence of PFAS.

“One of the concerns is that especially with the pandemic, we’ve only seen this huge increase in food packaging, delivery, takeout,” said Sheela Sathyanarayana, professor of pediatrics at the University. of Washington and the Seattle Children’s Research Institute whose 2021 study found 16 different PFAS chemicals in mothers’ breast milk.

“We have a much, much higher potential for exposure to these types of chemicals for everyone in the population, not just certain segments of the population,” she said. “Essentially, eating or drinking is one of the biggest sources of exposure.”

Tom Flanagin, spokesman for the American Chemistry Council, said his group supports the Food and Drug Administration’s agreement with several manufacturers to voluntarily eliminate certain PFAS chemicals used in substances applied to food packaging. But his group opposes what he described as “unscientific, ‘one size fits all’ restrictions on the entire PFAS class of chemicals.”

“The mere presence of PFAS does not indicate a health risk,” Flanagin said. “Not all PFAS are the same. Individual chemicals have different uses, as well as environmental and health profiles.

Studies have linked exposure to PFAS to an increased risk of cancer, developmental delays in children, damage to organs such as the liver and thyroid, increased cholesterol levels and reduced function. immunity, especially in young children, according to the US Environmental Protection Agency.

Less studied are the health risks of PFAS in packaging, where the chemicals give the material a reflective sheen.

A 2019 study by the Silent Spring Institute found that people who ate at home had lower blood levels of PFAS on average than those who ate fast food or ate in restaurants more frequently, including pizzerias. FDA rodent studies have also found that certain PFAS chemicals in greaseproof paper can bioaccumulate in the body.

However, there are few guidelines on the levels of PFAS in food packaging, if any, potentially harmful.

The EPA only sets a voluntary health advisory level of 70 parts per trillion for two PFAS chemicals in drinking water. The FDA, which regulates the use of certain PFAS chemicals in food packaging, released a three-year voluntary phase-out program in 2020. The agency is considering a petition from environmental groups calling for a ban on PFAS in food packaging.

In the United States, only California sets a limit of 100 parts per million of total fluoride in food packaging.

The lack of federal standards has shifted the fight against PFAS in food packaging to state legislatures.

California, Washington, Vermont, Connecticut, Maryland, Maine, Minnesota and New York have passed bills banning the deliberate addition of PFAS to food packaging, according to advocacy group Safer States.

Seven other states are considering similar legislation. Federal legislation was also introduced.

In Vermont, the drive to ban PFAS in packaging was inspired by the discovery that the chemicals had contaminated some of the state’s drinking water. As a result, the Legislature last year passed a bill banning PFAS and other chemicals, including bisphenols and phthalates, in food packaging as well as in carpets, ski wax and anti foam. -fire.

“Most people just look at the tissue paper around their sandwich and they think I’ve had my sandwich. But the reality is that the coating on that sandwich paper is PFAS,” said the project’s author. law, Democratic Senator Ginny Lyons.”It’s not very chemical, but if you eat a lot of packaged sandwiches and use a lot of paper plates over time, this chemical builds up in the body and can cause cancer or other disorders.”

The regulations coincided with bans announced by some of the largest restaurants and retailers.

Fourteen fast-casual restaurant chains with a total of nearly 124,000 stores and more than $203.2 billion in annual sales have pledged to remove PFAS from their food packaging, according to Toxic-Free Future. Among them are McDonald’s, Starbucks and Whole Foods. Restaurant Brands International, which owns Burger King, Popeyes and Tim Hortons, also plans to eliminate PFAS.

“If there are harmful chemicals in food packaging, people understand that those chemicals can migrate into food,” said Mike Schade, who leads Toxic-Free Future’s market transformation work. “It’s something that really resonates with consumers.”

None of the companies referenced health concerns when announcing their PFAS bans. Instead, most said they wanted to use sustainable packaging or said a ban was the right thing to do. A spokesperson for Whole Foods said many factors went into its decision, including that PFAS was a “persistent environmental contaminant”.

The challenge now is for these companies to find safer alternatives. Environmental groups are urging companies to adopt safer alternatives such as uncoated paper, bamboo or plastic derived from corn starch or sugar cane – and alternative coatings such as bio-wax or clay.

Washington must first find safer alternatives before the state ban takes effect within the next two years. Its evaluations revealed that there are alternatives for all takeout containers.

“Manufacturers can replace PFAS in their food packaging, which will protect people and the environment from these harmful chemicals,” said Lauren Tamboer, spokesperson for the Washington Department of Ecology.

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