By Dr. Stephanie R. Ostrowski

The headlines in the current issue of The Week (Feb 24, 2017, Vol 17, Issue 810) flashed “Health food scare of the week—Dangerous fast-food wrappers.”

According to a recently published brief review and field study published in Environmental Science and Technology Letters, when you drive away with your meal from a U.S. fast food chain, the grease-repellent cardboard and paper products your food is wrapped in are likely to contain PFAS compounds—per- and polyfluoroalkyl chemicals. This family of highly persistent synthetic chemicals has been associated with cancer, developmental toxicity, immunotoxicity, and other adverse health effects.

In 2014 and 2015, the authors collected over 400 samples of food contact papers, paperboard containers, and beverage containers throughout the United States and analyzed them using particle-induced gamma-ray emission (“PIGE”). They found that 46 percent of food contact papers and 20 percent of paperboard samples contained detectable fluorine.

“Among food contact papers, detection frequencies ranged from 38 percent for sandwich/burger wrappers to ~57 percent for Tex-Mex food packaging and dessert/bread wrappers,” the authors said.

The extent of migration of PFAS into food depends on the specific chemical, the type of food, contact time, and temperature. “Despite brief contact times between FCMs and fast food, high temperatures and use of emulsified fats can significantly increase the extent of migration … into food,” the authors noted.

They warn that “exposure to PFASs from fast food packaging is especially relevant for children, because one-third of U.S. children consume fast food daily…” and that “in January 2016, the FDA rescinded approval for three families of long-chain PFASs used in food contact materials, concluding that there was no longer a reasonable certainty of no harm.”

Reference: Indirect Food Additives: Paper and Paperboard Components Final Rule. 81 FR 5, 2015-33026; U.S. Food and Drug Administration: Washington, D.C.