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Study: Fast food packaging contains chemicals harmful to human health, environment [The Pump Handle]


Earlier this month, news broke of a study that found potentially health-harming chemicals in a variety of fast food packaging. Upon hearing such news, the natural inclination is to worry that you’re ingesting those chemicals along with your burger and fries. Study researcher Graham Peaslee says that’s certainly a risk. But perhaps the greater risk, he says, happens after that hamburger wrapper ends up in landfill and the chemicals seep into our environment and water.

The chemicals in question are per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFASs), which are used to make consumer products nonstick, waterproof and stain-resistant. Think carpets, upholstery and weather-resistant clothing. Previous research has found associations between exposures to PFASs and kidney and testicular cancer, low birth weight, thyroid disease, decreased sperm quality, pregnancy-induced hypertension and immunotoxicity in children. The chemicals have become somewhat ubiquitous too, detected worldwide in water, soil, sediment, wildlife and human blood samples. The study that Peaslee co-authored tested hundreds of fast food packaging samples for fluorine, a marker of PFASs, finding the element in about half of paper wrappers and one-fifth of paperboard samples.

The study, published earlier this month in Environmental Science & Technology Letters, ended up being the most comprehensive assessment to date on the presence of fluorinated chemicals in U.S. fast food packaging. However, Peaslee, a professor in the Department of Physics at the University of Notre Dame, told me that the original intent of the study was actually to test out a novel technique he developed for measuring fluorine known as particle-induced gamma-ray emission (PIGE) spectroscopy. The technique is about 10 times faster than more typical methods — in other words, he said, researchers can test a product for fluorine in just three minutes, which means one could potentially test hundreds of samples in a day. And that means researchers could test entire categories of consumer products in relatively short time spans.

So, Peaslee and colleagues decided to try out the new testing method on a large sample of products, choosing fast food packaging because prior research had detected PFASs in such products. Study researchers ended up collecting more than 400 packaging samples from 27 fast food restaurant chains, including McDonald’s, Burger King, Chipotle, Starbucks, Jimmy Johns, Panera and Chick-Fil-A, with the majority of samples coming from western Washington, eastern Massachusetts, western Michigan, northern California and Washington, D.C. Samples were then divided into six groups: food contact paper, like sandwich wrappers; noncontact paper, such as outer bags; food contact paperboard, like pizza boxes; paper cups; other beverage containers, such as milk cartons; and everything else, such as drink lids or applesauce containers.

Using the PIGE method, researchers found that of the 407 samples, 33 percent had detectable fluorine concentrations. Among food contact papers, detection frequencies ranged from 38 percent for sandwich and burger wrappers to about 57 percent for Tex-Mex food packaging and dessert and bread wrappers. Fluorine was more commonly found in grease-proof products than in beverage containers and products not intended for direct food contact. Overall, 46 percent of food contact papers and 20 percent of paperboard samples had detectable fluorine.

To help validate their findings — or to confirm that a positive result for fluorine is a reasonable proxy for PFASs — researchers then picked out a subset of 20 packaging samples to test for specific PFASs. They found that six of those samples had detectable levels of long-chain PFASs perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA), even though U.S manufacturers had agreed in 2011 to stop using such substances for food contact via a U.S. Food and Drug Administration initiative. In general, researchers found that the subset testing supported the PIGE results, with samples that had tested high in fluorine also containing PFASs.

With results in hand, study authors reached out to the fast food restaurants with some questions. Co-authors Laurel Schaider, Simona Balan, Arlene Blum, David Andrews, Mark Strynar, Margaret Dickinson, David Lunderberg, Johnsie Lang and Peaslee write:

We attempted to investigate the fast food chains’ knowledge of their use of fluorinated food packaging. For each of the fast food chains that we sampled, we submitted questions through Web sites and by phone regarding company use, sourcing, and general policies on fluorinated products. Only two companies provided a substantive response: one stated that they believed none of their food packaging contained fluorinated chemicals, and the other stated that they verified with their suppliers that their food packaging did not contain PFASs. However, we found a substantial portion of fluorinated food contact papers from these two chains. While it is difficult to draw conclusions on the basis of so few responses, this suggests a lack of knowledge in the fast food industry about the use of fluorinated packaging.

The study also noted that while manufacturers did phase out certain PFASs of concern, alternative PFASs still pose an environmental and health risk, which is prompting researchers like Peaslee to call for reducing the use of highly fluorinated compounds and switching to nonfluorinated food packaging alternatives, like wax paper or aluminum foil. In fact, Peaslee said highly fluorinated compounds shouldn’t be used in products that go to landfills, as the chemicals don’t naturally degrade and end up accumulating in the environment as well as in people’s bodies. Indeed, a 2016 study found that drinking water sources for 6 million U.S. residents exceeded federal advisories for PFASs.

But back to fast food packaging — how dangerous is it to our health? According to Peaslee’s study, the extent to which PFASs from food packaging actually migrate into the food depends on a number of variables, such as the type of food, temperature of the food, and how long the food remains in the packaging. It’s also unclear as to how much food packaging is responsible for people’s dietary consumption of PFASs, though the study noted that children may be at heightened risk because they eat significant amounts of fast food and are more vulnerable to negative health impacts. Still, the study states that fast food packaging “can contribute to indirect dietary exposure via migration into food.”

And while no one likes to think of their food being wrapped up in harmful chemicals, Peaslee said the greater risk to human health comes after all those wrappers end up at the landfill, where PFASs can begin seeping into and building up in our soil and water.

“You won’t eat that wrapper, but you will be eating the chemicals off that wrapper when it degrades,” he told me.

Peaslee added that he’s not holding his breath for better chemical safety regulations when it comes to PFASs. Instead, he said consumers can use their voices and dollars to call on companies to stop using fluorinated products. He also noted that after his study hit the newsstands, several fast food companies contacted him to discuss the results.

“We shouldn’t ban this whole class of chemicals, but we should certainly use them sparingly,” Peaslee told me, noting that PFASs are still critical firefighting tools. “For consumers, look for the tag that says it doesn’t contain (perfluorinated chemicals). That will be the loudest voice you have.”

To download a full copy of the fast food study, visit Environmental Science & Technology Letters.

Kim Krisberg is a freelance public health writer living in Austin, Texas, and has been writing about public health for 15 years.

Ellison vs. Perez [Greg Laden's Blog]


Which one are you for? I’ll take either. At first I didn’t want Ellison to leave MN05, but if he does, and he should if he is DNC chair, we have some excellent replacements lined up, and since MN05 is the most left leaning congressional district in the country, we don’t have to worry about it going blue.

BernieDems hate Perez because he supported Clinton, and their vitriol is greater than the hatred of Ellison, who supported Sanders in the primary and then Clinton in the general. But, if we react to BernieDem whinging and temper tantrums, we might as well get out of the game now. These videos show a fair amount of difference to the unity issue, by all of the candidates.

Nobody, including Perez and Ellison, said anything impressive. Ellison is closest to following my plan. Sally Boynton Brown is also close to my plan, but she seems to have been sidelined by being so supportive of #BLM.

Perez, on Meet the Press:

If this breaks down to Clinton wing vs. Sanders wing Democrats (Perez vs. Ellison) will that hurt the party more than it helps? I’m thinking yes, and neither Ellison nor Perez is therefore qualified to be DNC chair. But Perez does address the question, vaguely, in the above video.

From the DNC chair debate, Ellison is at 1:20 and beyond:

Ellison takes credit for Minnesota having two Democratic senators. Yes, Minneapolis (roughly, Ellison’s fifth district) made a difference in those races. No, Ellison did not turn a centrist, purple, or red district to a blue one. The Minnesota fifth district is inherently the most liberal congressional district in the country in all of history. A liberal dead cat would beat Jesus the Republican there.

Discussion of Clinton vs Sanders factions at about 3:40 in the above video, starting with Ellison. Ellison gave a good unity line.

Ben Santer on Seth Myers [Greg Laden's Blog]


Via Media Matters of America. Very interesting segment.

Santer talks about what is is like to be a rogue scientist in a Donald Trump administration.

The words referred to here the twelve words, were part of the 1995 Second Assessment report of the IPCC. That report is regularly updated, and forms the scientific and policy basis for our thinking about climate change at the national and international level. I highly recommend that you have handy at all times what I like to think of as the human-readable version of the most current IPCC report: Dire Predictions, 2nd Edition: Understanding Climate Change

An excellent resource for debunking and learning about the sort of junk Ted Cruz is seen to be spilling on this segment is Dana Nuccitelli’s book Climatology versus Pseudoscience: Exposing the Failed Predictions of Global Warming Skeptics.

Here’s a little more on Ted Cruz:

Is Decoupling GDP Growth from Environmental Impact Possible? [Stoat]

Source: Today’s lesson is from Is Decoupling GDP Growth from Environmental Impact Possible? (h/t mt), by James D. Ward , Paul C. Sutton, Adrian D. Werner, Robert Costanza, Steve H. Mohr, Craig T. Simmons; October 14, 2016 And here is their abstract.

The argument that human society can decouple economic growth—defined as growth in Gross Domestic Product (GDP)—from growth in environmental impacts is appealing. If such decoupling is possible, it means that GDP growth is a sustainable societal goal. Here we show that the decoupling concept can be interpreted using an easily understood model of economic growth and environmental impact. The simple model is compared to historical data and modelled projections to demonstrate that growth in GDP ultimately cannot be decoupled from growth in material and energy use. It is therefore misleading to develop growth-oriented policy around the expectation that decoupling is possible. We also note that GDP is increasingly seen as a poor proxy for societal wellbeing. GDP growth is therefore a questionable societal goal. Society can sustainably improve wellbeing, including the wellbeing of its natural assets, but only by discarding GDP growth as the goal in favor of more comprehensive measures of societal wellbeing.

Focus, dammit!

Oh, but before we focus, notice the picture, which is a Sign of Spring: a crocus. Not only that, it is one that I didn’t even plant and has just grown up. How lovely. We now return you to your focus.

The first irritation about this is that they are mixing up two things. The first – GDP growth decoupled from environmental impact – may or may not be sensible. The second – is GDP a good measure of societal wellbeing – is a totally different question. Arguably, if their answer to the second – that GDP is a poor measure – then all their arguments over the first point are irrelevant. The second is also a commonplace that all right-thinking people agree on, and then proceed to totally ignore in the absence of better idea.

The Limits to Growth

The introduction thoughtfully includes:

The Limits to Growth was a seminal work that warned of the consequences of exponential growth with finite resources. The World3 models underpinning the Limits to Growth analysis were validated using actual data after twenty and thirty years. A further independent evaluation of the projections of the World3 models showed that our actual trajectory since 1972 has closely matched the ‘Business as Usual’ scenario. Increasing recognition of the causes and consequences of climate change have generated a great deal of doubt regarding the feasibility of simultaneously pursing economic growth and preventing and/or mitigating climate change. Contemporary work in this broad area of assessing anthropogenic impact on the planet suggests that several ‘Planetary Boundaries’ have been crossed.

I say “thoughtful” of them because by introducing LTG, and making it clear they’re on the pro-LTG side, they immeadiately enable all the people who have made up their minds about LTG to predispose to either like or ignore the current paper. My own view is that LTG’s assumption of exponentially increasing consumption and lower-order increasing resources essentially assumes the conclusions but wraps this assumption up in enough modelling and maths that those who can’t see though it will miss the assumption.

And… by the time we hit the current paper’s equation 5 we’re at a similar point. Impacts are (exponentially increasing) * (technology), and technology is written as (floor + other_bit * exponentially decreasing). Oh well. There’s more after that but I don’t think it matters.


They say

The decoupling debate itself is polarized with a preponderance of neo-classical economists on one side (decoupling is viable) and ecological economists on the other (decoupling is not viable).

That sounds about right, but when talking about actual economics I’m not sure that “ecological economists” are to be trusted. To evaluate and project impacts of GW, or human activity, then yes we need ecologists.


Similar evidence to that in Fig 1, showing apparent decoupling of GDP from specific resources, has been shown throughout much of the OECD [28]. However, there are several limitations to the inference of decoupling from national or regional data. There are three distinct mechanisms by which the illusion of decoupling may be presented as a reality when in fact it is not actually taking place at all: 1) substitution of one resource for another; 2) the financialization of one or more components of GDP that involves increasing monetary flows without a concomitant rise in material and/or energy throughput…

It isn’t clear to me why substitution of a (presumably less impactful) resource is “illusion”. And poit 2 reads suspiciously like the idea that GDP growth that is “only in financial terms” isn’t “real” GDP growth, which I think is meaningless. They don’t justify what they say themselves, devolving that on a “colleague”; I’m unconvinced.


* Economics and Climatology?
* On getting out more

Andrew Schneider: “I rarely ignore whistle blowers, no matter how crazy they sound.” [The Pump Handle]


A reporter who ignores a whistleblower might miss an astonishing but true story. That’s one of the many lessons I learned from Andrew Schneider.  The investigative public health journalist died on February 17 from heart failure due to a respiratory disease.

Schneider was respected by co-workers for his dogged search for the truth. Others, including myself, are also remembering him for his significant contributions to public health. My colleague, Bob Harrison, MD, MPH at University of California San Francisco told me

“I tell my students about the importance of independent investigative journalists in telling the truth about toxic chemicals. I always mention Andy’s work and his influence on me.”

Harrison was recalling Schneider’s reporting for the Baltimore Sun in 2006 about individuals with severe lung disease. They’d worked with the butter-flavoring agent diacetyl and were gravely ill.

“Andy’s story of these workers led to a series of studies in California that helped set the stage for the nation’s only OSHA standard to regulate diacetyl, and to a nationwide NIOSH and Fed-OSHA emphasis program in a host of industries,” noted Harrison.

I first met Schneider while he was reporting for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer on the man-made asbestos disaster in Libby, Montana. The W.R. Grace caused disaster in that town—-including hundreds of deaths–seemed that it might be repeating itself in Louisa County, Virginia. I was working at the Mine Safety and Health Administration at the time and a whistleblower had come forward who was familiar with what was happening at Louisa County mine. (It too had previously been owned by W.R. Grace.) The whistleblower’s story was mind boggling, but I was inclined to believe it. MSHA inspectors later confirmed some of what the whistleblower reported.

That’s when Schneider told me that he doesn’t ignore what he hears from a whistleblower. The story may not be precisely what the whistleblower asserts, but there’s usually something to their story—and potentially something quite remarkable.

In a 2009 interview with fellow journalist William Heisel, I see Schneider offered a similar sentiment:

“I very rarely ignore whistle blowers, no matter how crazy they sound. I’ve learned too many times over the years that if they are that passionate about something, there’s probably something going on. It may not be what they suspect, but there is something going on. I have never had an emotionally passionate source be completely wrong.”

David McCumber, who worked with Schneider at the Seattle Post-Intelligencer and co-author of their book: An Air That Kills: How the Asbestos Poisoning of Libby, Montana Uncovered a National Scandal, wrote a wonderful tribute to his friend. McCumber’s piece includes touching recollections from Schneider’s colleagues.

Mary Pat Flaherty reported with Schneider on one of his two Pulitzer Prize winning stories. She told McCumber:

“For many years in many cities, (Andy) delivered a body of work that held movers and shakers accountable to the moved and shaken.”

Indeed he did and the world is a better place because of him. Andrew, you will be missed.

P.S. My colleague Jennifer Sass has her own wonderful remembrance about Andrew. It made me smile to remember the story of his puppy named Libby.