A study published in Environmental Science & Technology suggests that Americans may be consuming fast-food wrapped in paper treated with perfluorinated chemicals (PFCs)—the same chemicals used in stain-resistant products, firefighting materials, and nonstick cookware.

Researchers tested more than 400 samples of packaging materials, including hamburger and sandwich wrappers, pastry bags, beverage cups, and french fry containers, from a total of 27 fast-food restaurant chains including McDonald’s, Burger King, Chipotle, Starbucks, Jimmy Johns, Panera, and Chick-Fil-A. The researchers used a novel specialized method called particle-induced gamma-ray emission (PIGE) spectroscopy, which was developed to analyze the total fluorine content of each piece of packaging. PIGE is an efficient and cost-effective way to measure the presence of chemicals like fluorine in solid samples.

The researchers found evidence of fluorinated compounds called per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFASs). Of the materials tested, these chemicals were found in 56% of dessert and bread wrappers, 38% of sandwich and burger wrappers, and 20% of paperboard.

Previous studies have shown that these PFASs may migrate, contaminating the food and, when consumed, accumulating in the body. “This is a really persistent chemical,” said Graham Peaslee, a professor of experimental nuclear physics in the College of Science at the University of Notre Dame, who tested the samples. “It gets in the bloodstream, it stays there, and accumulates. There are diseases that correlate to it, so we really don’t want this class of chemicals out there.”

The researchers concluded that the results are concerning when considering that the National Center for Health Statistics has reported that one-third of U.S. children consume fast-food daily.


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