Food wrapper

Fast-food wrappers may contain toxic chemicals

Toxic food wrappers revealed in US study, supporting UK’s CHEMTrust findings
08 December 2021 , Steve Smethurst

New research from the US has revealed that the wrappers of foods such as burgers, pizzas and Tex-Mex can contain ‘forever chemicals’, which are linked to a range of health problems, yet the public are mostly unaware of the risks.

Fast-food wrappers (such as burgers and burritos) can contain toxic chemicals known to interfere with reproductive systems, and can contribute to attention and learning disorders, according to a new US study from George Washington University. The research paper, published in the Journal of Exposure Science and Environmental Epidemiology, found ortho-phthalates or replacement plasticisers in all food samples, which were taken from the most popular chains in three fast-food categories: hamburger, pizza and Tex-Mex. 

The authors noted that human exposure to ortho-phthalates is widespread, as they easily migrate out of products, with biomarkers of phthalates exposure detected in more than 98% of the US population. This is problematic as widespread phthalate exposure is “concerning for human health”. Exposure to ortho-phthalates such as DEHP and DnBP is linked to adverse health effects including neurodevelopmental, metabolic, and reproductive disorders, claim the authors.

With no ingredient list appearing on wrappers, the public is mostly unaware of the dangers. The authors said that they hope their results can “inform individual, market-based, and regulatory exposure-reduction strategies and support environmental public health prevention.”

The study adds weight to a briefing paper from the UK’s CHEMTrust earlier this year, looking at PFAS (per- or poly- fluorinated alkyl substances), a group of more than 4,700 industrial chemicals, many of which are linked to major environmental and human health concerns. They are sometimes referred to as ‘forever chemicals’, as many have a half-life of more than 1,000 years.

“We need strong laws that ensure these known hazardous chemicals are not allowed in food packaging, to protect wildlife, our health and the health of future generations.”

PFAS are used in a wide range of consumer products from food packaging to stain-resistant textiles, non-stick cookware and cleaning products. According to the UK environmental charity Fidra, PFAS can now be found in drinking water, wildlife and human blood serum.

The CHEM Trust has called on the UK government to restrict the use of all PFAS chemicals in all non-essential uses, including disposable food packaging and tableware, in order to protect people and wildlife from exposure to these harmful chemicals.

CHEM Trust campaigner Ellie Hawke told EHN Extra that it was extremely alarming that known hazardous chemicals are present in the packaging that holds our food. She said: “We need strong laws that ensure these known hazardous chemicals are not allowed in food packaging and other materials that come into contact with our food, to protect wildlife, our health now and the health of future generations.”

An image of a virus

Directory of Student Training Opportunities

We're supporting environmental health students on the pathway to professional registration and providing employers with quality industry talent.

Find out more
Top