Fluorinated Chemicals In Fast Food - Real Science, Fake News

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CNN breathlessly reported that “A study by the Silent Spring Institute [1] found fluorinated chemicals in one-third of the fast food packaging tested. Previous studies have shown polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAs) can migrate from food packaging into the food you eat. What types of packaging pose the greatest risk?

The risk of what? Well, the answer is foreshadowed in the second paragraph "… these substances perfluorooctanesulfonic acids (PFOSs and perfluorooctanoic acids (PFOAs) have been linked to kidney and testicular cancer, elevated cholesterol, decreased fertility, thyroid problems and changes in hormone functioning, as well as adverse developmental effects and decreased immune response in children." But this risk is summarily negated as they point out that these compounds have been “largely phased-out.” So what is the risk? Evidently it is

“Previous studies have shown that PFASs can migrate from food packaging into the food you eat.”

To CNN’s credit, they do link to the original paper so let’s take a look at what the study actually says.

  • Our study demonstrates the utility of the Proton Induced Gamma-ray Emission (PIGE) spectroscopic method for measuring total fluorine concentrations in food packaging and identifying samples most likely to contain high levels of PFASs
  • It is difficult to assess exposure and risk … in fast food packaging because the extent of exposure … and the toxicity of most fluorinated chemicals …are poorly characterized. …
  • Much of the U.S. production of PFOS and PFOA was phased out between 2000 and 2015…
  • In general, very little information about human half-lives and potential health effects of other replacement PFASs is available, despite widespread exposures and documented toxicity of related long-chain PFASs.
  • We found that fluorinated compounds are common in food contact papers and other fast food packaging in the United States
  • Fluorinated FCMs are also a source of PFASs to the environment.

The study is fair and balanced. But once it is in the hands of the media it is repackaged to capture eyes and attention. It is not fake news, just misleading. If you read inattentively, the packaging for fast foods is harmful to your health. Perhaps that is why the article was picked up by other sources. The Chicago Tribune reported:

"McDonald’s and Burger King, for instance, have promoted their packaging as “PFOA-free,” meaning it doesn’t contain banned PFCs. Fluorine, however, was detected in samples collected from both chains — indicating companies have embraced chemicals related to PFOA. "

No brands were identified in the original paper so Mr. Hawthorne please tell me your source of information. The Washington Post began with:

“Researchers find ‘another reason’ to avoid fast food: Chemicals in the packaging” before sharing this:

Before you panic: “It’s really difficult to make that link between what we were finding in the packaging, and how that might affect someone’s health,” said Schaider. “PFASs are a complex category.” … The study, published in the journal “Environmental Science & Technology Letters,” did not examine how much of the chemical migrated into food… Schaider declined to call out certain brands for their packaging, because she said her sample size was small.”

What about migration, that seems to be the underlying health risk? The study references the Danish EPA for establishing the level of concern regarding the movement of these chemicals into our food. It takes some digging but here is how it is calculated:

Migration can vary widely depending on the type of food, temperature, food moisture, and properties of each … compound. In calculating the guideline, a migration efficiency of 100% was used, which is an overestimate in most cases since 10% or lower are more typical migration efficiencies. The guidelines also assumes 100% absorption … into the body, which also may be an overestimate in many cases.

All told, the guideline’s level of concern is 10 to 100 times greater than the acknowledged science that backs it up.

Most of the reports on this study follow the same narrative arc of raising the alarm in the headline, discounting the crisis in the text, carefully selecting the findings or conclusions to mention and perhaps concluding with a tangential quote.

The CNN article ends with this safety tip: “For people who wish to reduce their exposure to these chemicals, they may be able to take some steps ... to reduce that migration from packaging into food -- for instance, by taking the food out of the packaging sooner rather than later." For me, the wrappers are off before I leave the drive-through.

[1] In fairness, the article from the Silent Spring Institute only indicates that these compounds are found in food wrappers and that they may migrate into food. CNN gave the materials their own slant.

“Silent Spring Institute began in 1994, after members of the Massachusetts Breast Cancer Coalition called for a scientifically sound investigation into elevated breast cancer rates on Cape Cod. They founded “a laboratory of their own” and named it Silent Spring Institute in tribute to Rachel Carson.”