More Reasons to Avoid Fast Food: Half of Wrappers Contain Chemicals That Might Cause Health Problems

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May be time to try the no-wrapper diet. Photo: Andrey Rudakov/Bloomberg via Getty Images

If the calorie bombs weren’t unhealthy enough already, a new study argues the packaging fast food comes in may pose additional health risks. Scientists at the Silent Spring Institute, UC Berkeley, and several other research groups collected the packaging used by 27 different chains, and in the results published today in Environmental Science & Technology Letters, they write that perfluorinated compounds, or PFCs, showed up in a third of the more than 400 samples they tested.

Ironically, this class of chemicals is used in food packaging because it’s a grease repellent — oily taco or burger grease won’t seep through wrappers that contain these compounds. But these wrappers can leach potentially dangerous chemicals into your greasy tacos. The two most common compounds — PFOSs and PFOAs — also turn up in furniture, carpet, and outdoor clothing. They’ve been linked to kidney and testicular cancer, hypertension, infertility, and several developmental effects in children. The EPA warns both are toxic in water if they exceed 70 parts per trillion, and studies have demonstrated they can “migrate” from the packaging into food, especially if it’s hot and stays wrapped up for a long time. The USDA no longer allows either compound in food packaging, but still permits the use of more than 90 “short-chain” PFCs. The authors argue research on this group definitely hasn’t ruled out links to similar health problems yet and, if anything, already suggests these compounds have “the same biological activity.”

Researchers broke packaging down into six types: (1) contact paper, like what a Subway sandwich or McDouble comes in; (2) contact paperboard, meaning clamshells and pizza boxes; (3) paper bags for to-go and delivery orders; (4) paper cups; (5) beverage containers, like juice cartons that aren’t made of paper; and (6) lids and other miscellany. Contact paper — wrappers, basically — is by far the worst offender, with 46 percent of samples testing positive for fluorine. Paperboard came next, at just 20 percent, followed by beverage containers not made of paper, at 16 percent. None of the others contained any fluorine at all.

One study author, Laurel Schaider, tells CNN that people trying to reduce their exposure do have “some steps” at their disposal. She suggests removing food from its packaging “sooner rather than later,” or asking for food not to be served in a wrapper (so, paper cup?). If all else fails, there’s always a third option: avoid eating the food in the first place.

Half of All Fast-Food Wrappers Could Present a Health Risk