‘I’ll Have A Burger, Fries and a Large Fluorinated Chemical, Please’

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Is “food-non-stickage” worth the health issues?

A bunch of smart scientists sampled 400 fast food wrappers and boxes and found that many of the big fast food chains have used unhealthy fluorinated chemicals in their packaging. The group published its findings in Environmental Science & Technology Letters. Their conclusion helps to explain how we all have “fluorinated chemicals” in our blood.

Scientists found fluorinated chemicals in about a third of take-out food packaging samples tested. Previous research has shown these chemicals can migrate from packaging into the food we eat. Source: Environmental Science & Technology Letters.

Have you ever noticed that the food you buy at McDonald’s or Burger King doesn’t glom onto the food wrappers the way your homemade meals do? I hadn’t, either. But the big brains in consumer packaging and the food industry did think about that problem and came up with a brilliant “no-food-stickage” idea: adding non-stick repellent to the wrapper. 

But the non-stick concept relies on a nasty set of chemicals that — you guessed it — are not good for humans. The fluorinated chemicals, found in just about every American’s blood, make nonstick, waterproofing and stain-proofing applications do their thing.

Fluorinated chemicals can be found in so many consumer products, including furniture, carpets, outdoor gear, clothing, cosmetics, cookware and even food packaging materials. The nasty downside to the widespread use of these materials is that people are getting quite sick from this chemical class.

Fluorinated chemicals are scientifically linked to kidney and testicular cancer, elevated cholesterol, decreased fertility, thyroid problems and changes in hormone functioning in adults, as well as adverse developmental effects and decreased immune response in children. If you’re curious and want a deeper dive into the impact of fluorinated chemicals, check out Oregon State’s Dr. Jennifer Field’s webinar. This is serious stuff.

Dr. Arlene Blum, my favorite scientist hero, asks the big question: “Why are we putting any fluorinated materials into contact with food?” Blum, of UC Berkeley and the Green Science Policy Institute, is an author of the study and the lady who, after 30 long years, finally got the cancer-causing and ineffective flame retardants out of upholstery and kids’ products. “Given the potential for harm, we must ask if the convenience of water and grease resistance is worth risking our health,” said Blum.

Dr. Blum’s Green Policy Institute offers easy steps to take to reduce your fluorinated chemical exposure:

  • Avoid products that are oil-repellent or stain-resistant.
  • Only purchase waterproof gear when you really need it.
  • Avoid cosmetics with PTFE or any word containing “perfluor” or “polyfluor” on their ingredients list.
  • Replace your Teflon nonstick cookware with cast iron, glass or ceramic. 
  • Avoid microwave popcorn and greasy foods wrapped in paper.
  • Tell retailers and manufacturers you want products without fluorinated chemicals.

Companies like IKEA, Crate & Barrel and Levi Strauss are committed to phasing out highly fluorinated chemicals. Some apparel brands have joined Greenpeace’s Detox campaign, and fast food chains have removed them from food packaging as a result of EWG’s action.

This study and all the articles that we’ve published below in Beneath the Surface hit on one key point: Our modern world is marinating in unregulated and untested chemicals. The chemicals are getting into our families’ bodies and are making people sick. It’s really up to us to prioritize asking two simple questions: “What’s in this product?” and, “Should I be careful about this product for my family’s sake?”

The scientific journal Epidemiology (my fav) published a study: “Prevention of Development Neurotoxicity.” This phrase, put another way, means stopping toxins from getting into babies’ nervous systems.

A large group of brilliant scientists stated that the United States’ and other world governments’ regulatory systems are “fundamentally broken.” They suggested a plan to fix it so that pregnant women can reduce adverse toxins in their babies’ central nervous system development. And we wonder why rates of chronic health issues are increasing?

This article is part of the Beneath the Surface series: “What’s in Everyday Consumer Products?” Articles in this series will examine the prevalence of synthetic chemicals in everyday products and the consequences of their use to our health and our environment. Some other work from the series:

Why Choosing Toxic-Free Cleaning Products is a Smart Move

What’s That Pretty Smell Messing with our Hormones?

Filtering Baltimore’s drinking water: It’s worth the trouble

How Flame Retardant are American Breasts?

Is Nonstick Cookware Safe?

Buying Safe Seafood in Baltimore’s Fishbowl

Is the Chemical Used to ‘Decaf ’Coffee Safe?

Big Fish: Getting Smart about Chemicals with Baltimore’s Toxin Guru McKay Jenkins

How green is your mani-pedi?

With e-Cloth, Just Add Water for Household Cleaning

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Laurel Peltier

Laurel writes the monthly environmental GreenLaurel column. A graduate of UVA's MBA program, she spends her time with her family and making "all things green" interesting. She co-wrote the Abell Foundation Report detailing Maryland's dysfunctional energy supplier marketplace and the negative outcomes for low-income households.
Laurel Peltier
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