By Brian Ronholm, Consumer Reports and Liz Hitchcock, Safer Chemicals, Healthy Families
The next time you order takeout at a favorite restaurant, there is a decent chance it will include a side order of toxic forever chemicals. That’s because many popular chain restaurants wrap their food in packaging made with PFAS, a dangerous class of chemicals that have been linked to an increased risk for some cancers, lower birth weight and immune system suppression.
PFAS are sometimes called “forever chemicals” because they are resistant to breaking down naturally in the environment, and can remain in people’s bodies for years. In fact, a recent peer-reviewed study by Toxic Free Future and the University of Washington found PFAS in every sample of breast-milk from fifty mothers in the Seattle area.
Unfortunately, PFAS from food wrappers contaminates water in the communities where it is produced, can seep into the food we eat, and pollute soil and water when packaging is disposed of in a landfill. While the packaging may be used once, the chemicals can last forever in the environment and make their way into our bodies.
Over the past few years, Toxic-Free Future conducted several studies on PFAS in food packaging and led a campaign to convince chain restaurants and grocery stores to stop using packaging made with PFAS that has won commitments from more than twenty corporations to phase out their use.
But we can’t just depend on voluntary measures when it comes to protecting public health. It’s time for Congress to take action by passing The Keep Food Containers Safe From PFAS Act, which would prohibit the intentional use of PFAS in food packaging.
Efforts to ban PFAS in food packaging have gained momentum in the wake of a new investigation by Consumer Reports that found measurable levels of PFAS in more than half of the food packages tested, including wrappers from fast food chains like McDonald’s, Burger King, Chick-fil-A and Arby’s. Even retailers that promote healthier foods, such as Trader Joe’s, Cava and Sweetgreen, had food packaging that contained troubling PFAS levels.
Of the 118 products Consumer Reports tested, almost a third (37) had PFAS levels above 20 parts per million (ppm), a limit set by Denmark to protect public health, while 22 products had levels surpassing 100 ppm, which would be banned under a new California law set to go into effect in 2023. Nathan’s Famous had the products with the two highest average readings – 876 ppm and 618 ppm for paper bags used for sides. Other food wrappers with particularly high levels included cookie bags from Burger King (345.7 ppm), cookie bags from Arby’s (457.5 ppm) and a sandwich wrapper at Chick-fil-A (553.5 ppm).
This follows three separate studies published by Toxic-Free Future in 2018, 2019, and 2020 that found indications of PFAS in the packaging of McDonald’s Big Mac, Burger King’s Whopper and in take-out containers at Whole Foods Market and Sweetgreen.
The good news is corporations and state governments are taking action. Since the Consumer Reports study was released, Nathan’s Famous and Chick-fil-A expressed publicly their commitment to phase out the use of PFAS in their food packaging. Also, after years of campaigning by Toxic-Free Future, the corporation that owns Burger King, Tim Hortons and Popeyes announced their intention to phase out PFAS in their food wrappers at their 27,000 locations in more than 100 countries by 2025. They join twenty more major retailers including McDonald’s, Starbucks, Taco Bell, Whole Foods, and Wendy’s that have also set timelines to phase out PFAS in food packaging.
So far, seven states have enacted laws that ban the intentional use of PFAS in food packaging, including California, Connecticut, Maine, Minnesota, New York, Vermont, and Washington. Legislation also is pending in a number of other states.
The danger posed by PFAS has been known for more than 70 years. While described as “forever chemicals,” they also are called “everywhere chemicals” because they are used in hundreds of products to make them resistant to heat, water, oil and corrosion.
Despite the well known dangers of PFAS, there has not been enough done to curb its use. It is time for Congress to do what it can to eliminate PFAS in consumer products. Passing the Keep Food Containers Safe from PFAS Act would represent a significant step forward.
Brian Ronholm, Director of Food Policy, Consumer Reports
Liz Hitchcock, Director, Safer Chemicals Healthy Families (Safer Chemicals Healthy Families is the federal advocacy program of Toxic Free Future.)