Brenda Hampton first encountered the toxic industrial compound PFAS after discovering it was part of a cocktail of contaminants poisoning drinking water in her North Alabama community.

Hampton, who believes the contaminated water contributed to the kidney problems she and other residents suffer from, soon learned that the chemicals were found in another source close to home – fast food wrappers, boxes and plates.

Knowing that her three daughters and eight grandchildren ate their fair share of hamburgers and fries, in 2020 she joined the nationwide fight to ban PFAS from 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 advocacy group Toxic-Free Future to lead a petition last year that garnered nearly 75,000 signatures. McDonald’s later announced that it would be removing 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 “timeless chemicals” for their persistence in the environment, they have been used for decades to prevent grease, water and other liquids from seeping through wrappers, boxes and bags.

Opponents of the practice argue that the packaging poses a risk to consumers and the environment as waste ends up in landfills. into compost or incinerated when chemicals can enter the groundwater or soil. They claim that there are safer alternatives.

Several groups claim that many major brands use PFAS packaging and that testing has sometimes shown extremely high levels.

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

“One of the challenges is that, especially during the pandemic, we are seeing a huge increase in food packaging, delivery and takeaway,” said Sheela Satyanarayana, professor of pediatrics at the University of Washington and the Seattle Children’s Research Institute. the study found 16 different PFAS chemicals in mothers’ breast milk.

“We have a much higher potential for exposure to these types of chemicals in all people, not just certain segments of the population,” she said. “Mostly food or drink 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 phase out certain PFAS chemicals used in food packaging materials. But his group opposes what he called “unscientific, universal” restrictions on the entire PFAS class of chemicals.

“The mere presence of PFAS does not indicate a health risk,” Flanagin said. “All PFAS are not the same. Individual chemicals have different uses and profiles for the environment and health.”

According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, studies have linked PFAS exposure to an increased risk of cancer, developmental delay in children, damage to organs such as the liver and thyroid, elevated cholesterol, and reduced immune function, especially among young children.

Less studied are the health hazards 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, on average, lower blood levels of PFAS than those who ate fast food or ate more at restaurants, including pizzerias. FDA rodent studies have also shown that some of the PFAS chemicals in greaseproof paper can bioaccumulate in the body.

However, there are several recommendations as to what levels, if any, of PFAS in food packaging are potentially harmful.

The Environmental Protection Agency sets a voluntary health advisory level of 70 parts per trillion for just two PFAS chemicals in drinking water. The FDA, which regulates the use of certain PFAS chemicals in food packaging, issued 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 US, only California imposes a 100 ppm limit on total fluoride in food packaging.

The lack of federal standards has led the fight for PFAS in food packaging to move into state legislatures.

California, Washington, Vermont, Connecticut, Maryland, Maine, Minnesota and New York have passed bills to ban 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 push to ban PFAS in packaging was driven by findings that the chemicals had contaminated some of the state’s drinking water. As a result, the legislature passed legislation last year banning PFAS and other chemicals, including bisphenols and phthalates, from food packaging, as well as carpeting, ski wax and firefighting foam.

“Most people just look at the tissue paper around their sandwich and think I got my sandwich. But the reality is that the coating on that sandwich paper is PFAS,” said the author of the bill, Democratic Senator Jeannie Lyons. “It’s not a lot of chemistry, but if you eat a lot of a wrapped sandwich and use a lot of paper plates, then over time this chemical builds up in the body and can cause cancer or other diseases.”

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

Fourteen fast food chains and fast food restaurants with a total of approximately 124,000 stores and over $203.2 billion in annual sales have committed to removing PFAS from 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 Horton, also plans to liquidate PFAS.

“If there are harmful chemicals in food packaging, people understand that these chemicals can migrate into food,” said Mike Shade, who is leading the effort to transform the Toxic-Free Future market. “It’s something that really resonates with consumers.”

Neither company mentioned health concerns when announcing the PFAS ban. Instead, most expressed a desire to use sustainable packaging or said the ban was the right thing to do. A Whole Foods spokesperson said a variety of factors influenced his decision, including that PFAS is a “persistent environmental pollutant.”

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

Washington must first find safer alternatives before the state ban goes into effect in the next two years. His evaluations have shown 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 Tambour, a spokeswoman for the Washington Department of the Environment.

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