Vermont study shows PFAS chemicals in take-out food packaging from national chains


MONTPELIER, Vt. (NEWS10) – A report published Thursday in Vermont found that nearly half of all take-out food packaging tested from six popular national food chains contains toxic PFAS (per- and poly-fluoroalkyl) substances. “Packaged in Pollution: Are food chains using PFAS in packaging?” shows that all the chains sampled use at least one packaging item likely to contain PFAS, a chemical known to threaten human health.

(Vermont Public Interest Research Group)

The study investigated packaging from fast-food chains Burger King, McDonald’s, and Wendy’s, plus “healthy” chains Cava, Freshii, and Sweetgreen. While the health-conscious chains are not established in the Capital Region, they have spots in New York City, Boston, and Hartford.

The testing suggested evidence of PFAS treatment in the packaging for iconic “Big Mac” and “Whopper” burgers, as well as in all of the health-conscious chains’ salad bowls. Testing indicates that molded fiber bowls and trays, as well as paper bags for greasy foods—like french fries, chicken nuggets, and cookies—frequently tested above the level for fluorine, which suggests PFAS was used. Paperboard cartons and clamshells for fried foods and desserts, however, were free of PFAS.

“Whether the chains are serving burgers, fries, or salad, they owe it to their customers to serve it up in safe packaging,” explains Erika Schreder, Science Director at Toxic-Free Future and co-author of the study. “We found many instances of packaging that’s PFAS-free—there’s no reason for these chains to choose any food packaging that contains PFAS.”

Four of the six food chains studied have no public policy on PFAS in their packaging. Cava and Sweetgreen have both announced that they would phase-out PFAS items. Several other major chains have already committed to moving away from thein their packaging, including Chipotle, Panera Bread, Taco Bell, Trader Joe’s, and Whole Foods.

“These toxic chemicals are linked to serious health problems like cancer, liver damage, decreased fertility, and asthma,” explains Dr. Linda S. Birnbaum, former Director of the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences and National Toxicology Program. “PFAS can weaken our immune system, making us more vulnerable to infectious diseases like COVID-19.”

PFAS makes packaging, carpeting, upholstery, and apparel resistant to stains, grease, and water. They are also used in firefighting foam, ski wax, and industrial applications. Evidence shows that these chemicals can make their way back to people through drinking water, food, and air. “PFAS chemicals don’t ever break down. They permanently remain in the environment and easily move into people, persisting in our bodies,” adds Dr. Birnbaum.

In the Capital Region, PFAS has been a recurring issue in Cohoes and Hoosick Falls, for example. The state legislature passed a bill in late July to ban PFAS chemicals in food packaging, but it has not been signed by Gov. Andrew Cuomo.

“There is no excuse for restaurants to be wrapping food in toxic packaging, especially when viable alternatives are already in use,” said Marcie Gallagher, Environmental Associate at the Vermont Public Interest Research Group, which backed the study alongside partners like the Vermont Public Interest Research and Education Fund, Vermont Conservation Voters, the Mind the Store campaign, and Toxic-Free Future.

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