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Issues Of The Environment: Getting PFAS Out Of Food Packaging And Other Products

Oct 14, 2020

The Ecology Center research director Jeff Gearhart
Credit The Ecology Center / ecocenter.org

Do you like the occasional Big Mac or Whopper?  It turns out the packaging those fast food favorites come in contain the toxic, forever chemicals known as PFAs.  For this week's "Issues of the Environment," Jeff Gearhart from the Ann Arbor-based Ecology Center speaks to WEMU's David Fair about all you need to know to protect yourself and the environment and the work underway to remove PFAS from food packaging and other consumer products permanently.


Overview

  • In a new report, the Ecology Center, the Mind the Store campaign, Toxic-Free Future, and its partners found that nearly half of all take-out food packaging tested from multiple popular food chains contains potentially toxic chemicals.  All six food chains sampled had one or more food packaging items that likely contain toxic PFAS (per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances)—chemicals known to threaten human health.
  • The new study, Packaged in Pollution: Are food chains using PFAS in packaging?, analyzed packaging from six national food chains, including top fast-food chains Burger King, McDonald’s, and Wendy’s as well as top health-minded food chains Cava, Freshii, and Sweetgreen.  The testing suggests toxic PFAS treatment in both McDonald’s “Big Mac” container and Burger King’s “Whopper” wrapper as well as all of the health-conscious chains’ salad bowls. 
  • The new study coincides with pending state legislation by Sen. Jeff Irwin (D-Ann Arbor), to phase out the use of PFAS in food packaging in Michigan.  The bill is expected to be introduced next week.
  • In the last two years, Jeff Gearhart, Research Director for HealthyStuff.org at the Ecology Center in Ann Arbor has worked on studies that have identified PFAS use in residential and commercial carpeting, shoes, and children's crib mattresses.

Ecology Center Study Finds PFAS in Fast Food Packaging

ANN ARBOR—In a new report released today, the Ecology Center, the Mind the Store campaign, Toxic-Free Future, and its partners found that nearly half of all take-out food packaging tested from multiple popular food chains contains potentially toxic chemicals. The new investigation shows that all six food chains sampled had one or more food packaging items that likely contain toxic PFAS (per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances)—chemicals known to threaten human health.

The new study, Packaged in Pollution: Are food chains using PFAS in packaging?, analyzed packaging from six national food chains, including top fast-food chains Burger King, McDonald’s, and Wendy’s as well as top health-minded food chains Cava, Freshii, and Sweetgreen.  The testing suggests toxic PFAS treatment in both McDonald’s “Big Mac” container and Burger King’s “Whopper” wrapper as well as all of the health-conscious chains’ salad bowls. 

The report is part of the ongoing work of the Michigan-based Ecology Center to highlight the continued use of hazardous PFAS chemicals in consumer products.  In the last two years, Ecology Center studies have identified PFAS use in residential and commercial carpeting, shoes, and children's crib mattresses.  Most recently, researchers at the Ecology Center, working with chemists at the University of Notre Dame and Indiana University, have identified PFAS) waterproofing chemicals in 23% (3 of 13) tested crib mattresses.

The new study coincides with pending state legislation by Sen. Jeff Irwin (D-Ann Arbor), to phase out the use of PFAS in food packaging in Michigan. The bill is expected to be introduced next week.

Four out of the six food chains studied do not have a public chemical policy to address toxic PFAS in their food packaging materials.  Today, in response to the study, Cava announced it will eliminate PFAS from its food packaging by mid-2021.  Sweetgreen also recently announced that it is phasing out PFAS from its bowls by the end of 2020 and has already introduced PFAS-free bowls in one market.  Other major retailers and restaurants that have committed to moving away from PFAS include Chipotle, Panera Bread, Taco Bell, Trader Joe’s, and Whole Foods Market.

Today’s fast food packaging testing found that items in two packaging categories— paper bags used for greasy foods along with molded fiber bowls and trays—most frequently tested above the fluorine screening level, suggesting toxic PFAS treatment.  Paper bags sampled included a French fry bag from McDonald’s, a chicken nuggets bag from Burger King, and cookie bags from all three burger chains.  On the other hand, a packaging material category found to be free of PFAS were paperboard containers, specifically, the cartons and clamshells used for fried foods and desserts at burger chains.  All of these sampled paperboard items tested below the fluorine screening level, suggesting that they are PFAS-free.

Scientists have found links between exposures to PFAS and a wide range of health problems. “These toxic chemicals are linked to serious health problems like cancer, liver damage, decreased fertility, and asthma,” explains Dr. Linda S. Birnbaum, Scholar in Residence at Duke University, Scientist Emeritus and Former Director of the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS) and National Toxicology Program (NTP).  “PFAS can weaken our immune system, making us more vulnerable to infectious diseases like COVID-19.”

A consortium of scientists recently published a new scientific statement emphasizing the dangerous health impacts of PFAS and other toxic chemicals in food packaging, noting how easily these chemicals migrate out of packaging.  “PFAS chemicals don’t ever break down. They permanently remain in the environment and easily move into people, persisting in our bodies,” adds Dr. Birnbaum.

The investigation commissioned an independent laboratory to measure total fluorine in a total of 38 food packaging samples from 16 locations across six chains.  Nine out of the 38 samples were replicates, resulting in 29 unique sample items for analysis. Samples were collected at food chains in and around New York City, Seattle, WA, and Washington, DC in January 2020 and were analyzed in February 2020.

The study found that 14 food packaging items tested above the fluorine screening level.  Testing for total fluorine is a common way to assess the use of toxic PFAS chemicals.  At least one food packaging item from each of the six food chains studied tested above the fluorine screening level, suggesting the presence of PFAS chemicals.

"PFAS are a dangerous class of chemicals that are in our blood, our water, and even our food," said Sen. Jeff Irwin (D-Ann Arbor).  "Food packaging is one way that we put PFAS in our bodies and these dangerous chemicals are in many common food items such as French fry or chicken nugget bags, and burger wrappers at fast food chains.  That's why I'm proposing legislation to protect people from this unnecessary harm by banning PFAS in food packaging." 

PFAS are chemicals used to impart stain, grease, and water resistance to food packaging, carpeting, upholstery, and apparel.  The chemicals are also used in firefighting foam, ski wax, and industrial applications.  Toxic exposures continue even after the packaging is disposed of. Evidence shows that these chemicals can make their way back to people through drinking water, food, and air.  Food crops and gardens can become polluted with PFAS-containing compost, as shown from research demonstrating plants taking up PFAS from soil.  Scientists often refer to PFAS as “forever chemicals” because they don’t break down in the environment.

“These toxic chemicals continue to contaminate people and pollute the environment long after the disposable packaging is discarded. And there’s really no need for it,” said Mike Schade, Mind the Store campaign director.

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has prohibited the use of only a small number of chemicals within the PFAS class in food packaging, and just last week announced that manufacturers have agreed to phase out use of another subset of PFAS. However, FDA continues to allow the use of many PFAS.  Mounting evidence on the dangers of PFAS exposure has led to the passage of restrictions on PFAS in food packaging over the last few years in San Francisco and Berkeley as well as in states including Washington and Maine.  In July 2020, the New York Legislature approved a bill to ban PFAS in food packaging, which now awaits the governor’s signature.  In Europe, Denmark enacted a ban on PFAS in cardboard and paper food packaging that went into force July 1, 2020.

"National fast food companies like McDonalds need to show leadership and stop using PFAS treated packaging.  We also challenge all Michigan-based food businesses, small and large, to stop using PFAS treated food packaging," stated Jeff Gearhart, research director at the Ecology Center.  "We also applaud State Senator Irwin's legislation to address this issue and urge passage of this legislation."

Without national regulation of toxic PFAS, accelerated action from food retailers in addressing PFAS in food-packaging materials is necessary to reduce exposures to people and the environment.  “Multiple major food chains have now announced new policies on PFAS. So, clearly, safer alternatives exist and are being used. Those that haven’t stepped up have the ability to do so,” Schade explains.  “As the largest fast-food chain in the world, McDonald’s has a responsibility to its customers to keep them safe. These dangerous chemicals don’t belong in its food packaging.  I, for one, am NOT ‘lovin’ it.’”  Today, the Mind the Store campaign and its partners launched a petition to McDonald’s urging them to take action by committing to the elimination of PFAS in their food-packaging materials.

ECOLOGY CENTER

The Ecology Center is a membership-based nonprofit environmental organization based in Ann Arbor, Michigan.  It works at the local, state and national levels on environmental justice, health, waste, and community issues.  www.ecocenter.org

MIND THE STORE CAMPAIGN

The national Mind the Store campaign challenges big retailers to eliminate toxic chemicals and replace them with safer alternatives.  The campaign coordinates the annual retailer report card that benchmarks and scores major retailers on their safer chemicals policies and implementation programs. www.mindthestore.org and www.retailerreportcard.org

TOXIC-FREE FUTURE

Toxic-Free Future advocates for the use of safer products, chemicals, and practices through advanced research, grassroots organizing, and consumer engagement to ensure a healthier tomorrow.  www.toxicfreefuture.org (Source: https://www.ecocenter.org/new-study-indicates-toxic-chemicals-used-take-out-food-packaging-popular-food-chains)

Jeff Gearhart

Jeff Gearhart, M.S., has worked for over 20 years on a wide range of environmental issues, including air quality, pollution prevention, life cycle assessment, consumer product testing, and green chemistry. 

For over 16 years, he has worked with the Ecology Center. Jeff has spearheaded numerous chemicals policy market campaigns, co-authored multiple peer-reviewed articles on toxics in consumer products, pioneered citizen science in the use of x-ray fluorescence technology for toxics testing in products, and developed the now internationally recognized HealthyStuff.org product chemistry disclosure project and its extensive website of robust advocacy resources and product testing results for more than 100,000 products. Jeff likes to create and build things, and it is this compulsion that drives him to develop campaigns that gather and present new knowledge so the world will have better products and an improved environment. 

Jeff is assisted by numerous student interns to achieve the work of the HealthyStuff.org program, providing critical exposure for young people to cutting edge technology for chemical testing. 

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— David Fair is the WEMU News Director and host of Morning Edition on WEMU.  You can contact David at 734.487.3363, on twitter @DavidFairWEMU, or email him at dfair@emich.edu