We all know that fast food is loaded with bad fats, chemical preservatives, carbs, added sugar, and calories. But now there is another reason to stay away from the stuff.
Researchers from the Silent Spring Institute in Newton, Mass., tested more than 400 fast food wrappers and boxes. They came from 27 chain restaurants across the country.
They found that 46% of the wrappers contained the toxic chemical fluorine.
Studies have linked fluorine compounds, such as perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) and perfluorooctanesulfonic acid (PFOS), to a wide range of serious health problems. They include kidney and testicular cancers, thyroid disease, ulcerative colitis, high blood pressure during pregnancy, and low-birthweight babies.
PFOA and PFOS are added to paper packaging to stop greasy foods from soaking through. But the chemicals leach into food, scientists say.
In addition to finding that nearly half of fast food wrappers contain these poisons, researchers further broke down their findings. They discovered fluorine compounds in:
- 56% of dessert and bread wrappers
- 38% of sandwich and burger wrappers
- 20% of paperboard containers (such as a French fry boxes)
No paper cups contained the toxin.
Researchers were surprised to find so many wrappers and boxes containing fluorine compounds because companies were supposed to have phased out the chemicals.
But many wrappers are imported. And foreign manufacturers still use PFOA and PFOS. Plus, there are huge inventories of old wrappers in the U.S. that contain the damaging substances.
What’s more, many manufacturers use recycled paper for fast food wrappers. The old fluorinated paper often ends up being processed to make new packaging.
Poison in Your Food
The study’s lead researcher is environmental chemist Laurel Schaider. She noted that about a third of American children eat fast food every day.
“These chemicals have been linked with numerous health problems. So it’s concerning that people are potentially exposed to them in food,” said Schaider. “Children are especially at risk for health effects because their developing bodies are more vulnerable to toxic chemicals.”
The half-life of fluorine compounds in your body is up to 3 ½ years, said Schaider. Besides food wrappers, PFOS and PFOA are used to make nonstick cookware and stain-resistant carpets and fabrics.
“One of the challenges in avoiding exposure is you can’t tell by looking at a wrapper whether it contains fluorine,” Schaider said. “We can choose not to purchase a stain-resistant carpet or a stain-resistant coating on our furniture. But it’s difficult for a consumer to choose food packaging that doesn’t have fluorinated chemicals.”
Her study was published in the journal Environmental Science & Technology.
Fast Food Restaurants Ignore the Problem
Don’t expect fast food restaurants to clean up their act. Researchers asked the 27 chains included in the study about toxins in their packaging. Only two companies responded.
One said absolutely none of their packaging contained fluorinated chemicals. Tests showed it did.
Another claimed its packaging vendor said its wrappers had no fluorine. Tests showed they did.
5 Ways to Protect Yourself from Fluorine Compounds
There are simple ways to reduce your fluorine exposure:
- Remove restaurant food from its wrapper or box as soon as possible.
- Never store leftover fast food in the original wrapper.
- If some of the food, such as the cheese on a burger, has soaked onto the wrapper, discard that part.
- Ask your server to put French fries, chicken fingers, or other small food items in a paper cup. As we mentioned earlier, cups don’t contain fluorinated compounds.
- If you are eating in the restaurant, ask that your food not be wrapped and be served on a plate instead.
Of course, the best strategy is to avoid fast food altogether. It’s just about the worst thing you can eat.
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