We don't have to tell you twice that most fast food is bad for you. Heck, even when McDonald's offered a kale salad, it packed more calories than a Big Mac. But the food itself might not be the only thing you need to worry about — the packaging might be harmful, too, according to new research.
In a February 2017 study published in Environmental Science & Technology Letters, researchers tested more than 400 packaging samples from 27 fast food chains across the country, making this the largest and most comprehensive study of fast food packaging to date. They analyzed the samples — which included paper wrappers, paperboard containers, and drink cups — for traces of fluorinated chemicals called PFASs (that's short for per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances), which are used to make surfaces water- and grease-resistant.
Ultimately, the researchers found that 33 percent of all tested packaging contained fluorine, a strong indicator of PFASs. Dessert and bread wrappers were the most likely to contain fluorine at 56 percent, followed by sandwich and burger wrappers (38 percent), and paperboard packaging (20 percent).
The amount of PFASs found in the different packaging samples varied greatly, which led the researchers to believe that some packaging was intentionally made using the chemicals while others were picking up trace amounts from recycled materials or other sources. But these chemicals are "highly persistent in the environment," the researchers said in a statement, and any amount of them can leach into food.
So, what exactly is the deal with PFASs? "These chemicals have been linked with numerous health problems, so it's concerning that people are potentially exposed to them in food," explains Laurel Schaider, PhD, the study's lead author and an environmental chemist at the Silent Spring Institute. Exposure to some of these chemicals has been linked to increased risk of cancer, thyroid disease, immune suppression, low birth weight, and decreased fertility, she says — and children are especially vulnerable to these health risks.
But before you go swearing off all foods that come in paper wrappers, it's worth noting that more research needs to be conducted to establish a clear cause-and-effect connection between PFASs and health risks. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, some human studies of PFASs have linked them to health problems such as decreased fertility and increased cancer risk — but not all human studies have found this link.
But, in the meantime, it certainly wouldn't hurt to lay off the fast food — possibly for more reasons than one.