It’s bad enough when the junk in (or on) your food harms you—you know, the preservatives, the agricultural sprays, the stuff in there that you can’t begin to pronounce, the coloring agents, and whatever—but this is getting ridiculous. It’s not necessarily the food you prepare at home from scratch that we’re talking about. It’s not even the Boiled Water Helper that some “cooks” need to put something mostly edible in front of you. It’s the wrapper, especially the one making cozy with your fast food burger. And so we moan, “Now, what is it?”
If you’re ready, we’ll give you the list. Even if you’re not, here it comes: perfluoroalkyls, polyfluoroalkyl phosphate esters (PAP’s), polyfluorinated carboxylic acids (PFCA’s), and everyone’s favorite, perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA). You don’t have to remember these, but note that fluorine is a central player in the cast. Yep, the same stuff in your toothpaste, the label of which tells you not to swallow too much.
Fluorine belongs to a group of chemical elements called halogens, along with chlorine, bromine, iodine, and astatine, the last of which is essentially unavailable in nature and is radioactive. The halogens are the only group that contains elements in all three states of matter—fluorine and chlorine are gases, iodine is a solid, and bromine is a liquid. All are non-metals. Because they are highly reactive, they’re found in the environment only as compounds. Iodine is the heaviest element needed by living creatures, and its appropriateness to thyroid health is well-known. But it’s less reactive than its fellows, so it’s easily displaced. That means that fluorine and bromine, which is used to bleach flour, can push it aside and take its place in your thyroid gland. Hypothyroidism, anyone?
Fluorides are moderately toxic and, if conditions are right, can attack intracellular calcium. It’s readily absorbed and forms an acid that binds with calcium and interferes with several enzymes. Too much fluoride leads to skeletal fluorosis and mottled teeth. (Reddy, 2009) It might be all right to use on the teeth from the outside, but certainly not from inside the body.
What’s this got to do with food wrappers? The compounds named in the second paragraph are stable synthetic chemicals that repel grease, oil, and water. If you ever saw the television commercial that boasted of stain-repellent and water-repellent clothing, you’ve seen these chemicals at work. Though still popular on carpets, they pretty much have been removed from materials that touch the skin. Hmmm. However, they are used to make paper and cardboard packaging. These would be the PFCA’s, which break down into PAP’s, and they wrap your burger so you can eat it while you drive and stay relatively grease free. Do you microwave popcorn? Guess what coats the inside of the bag.
Human exposure to PFCA’s is worldwide. These chemicals are environmentally persistent, as well, and have generated considerable scientific and regulatory interest on a global scale. (Andersen, 2008) Research at the University of Toronto found that the PAP in food contact applications does affect blood chemistry in humans, causing changes in sex hormones and cholesterol. In laboratory animals, which are obviously smaller than people, premature death and developmental delay have been observed. Some of the effects on rats—tumor growth, for example—may not be applicable to humans. (D’eon, 2011) But who knows? We mentioned that these fluorinated substances are environmentally persistent. They also persist in the blood stream. Think of what happens to people who eat fast food every day.
PFOA has been detected in a high percentage of human blood samples and house dust taken from homes in Massachusetts, Maine, New York, Oregon, and California, and it has contaminated drinking water in West Virginia and Minnesota. Two companies that manufacture the chemicals, DuPont and 3M, were allegedly aware of the potentially harmful effects on humans, but sequestered the data and never told the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency of the adverse effects information, as required under the Toxic Substances Control Act. They got banged for a minimum of thirteen million dollars in fines, with the potential to reach three hundred million. DuPont settled a class action suit with West Virginia in 2004. The courts added that the ante will be upped if a definitive link is found between the chemicals and human misery. This could exceed three hundred million dollars. Ouch.
The Office of Research and Development of the EPA issued a paper in March, 2009, that listed a hundred sixteen “articles of commerce” that contain perfluorocarboxylic acid (aka PFCA). How come we never heard about any of this? Of course, typical of many authorities, is the hedge that additional study is warranted before anything definite can be proposed. The list covers commodities from household liquids to textiles, from Teflon cookware to food contact paper, and even…gets this…dental floss. Dental floss??? You can check it out at www.oecd.org/dataoecd/47/50/48125746.pdf Makes you proud, doesn’t it?
It appears that interest in this matter was contagious in the first decade of the new century. The FDA learned that fluorochemical paper additives migrate into food, after it examined coconut and other oils, butter, water, vinegar, and alcohol. Buttered microwave popcorn was a star. (Begley, 2008) The persistence of the fluorinated entities was supported by Canadian research the following year. (Benskin, 2009) Even the State of New Jersey got into the act and looked at drinking water in selected areas, finding detectable levels of PFOA in a variety of sources, but adding that levels are not regulated under State requirements. That means everything is fine and dandy, right? Of all the samples tested, 78% were positive for fluoride contamination.
This stuff interferes with immunity in humans and wildlife (Dewitt, 2011), could possibly be associated with longer time to pregnancy (Vestergaard, 2012), and might affect your liver (Naile, 2012) and thyroid (Boas, 2011). We need to call our favorite fast food emporiums and ask a few questions. Does it matter to you?
Andersen ME, Butenhoff JL, Chang SC, Farrar DG, Kennedy GL Jr, Lau C, Olsen GW, Seed J, Wallace KB. Perfluoroalkyl acids and related chemistries--toxicokinetics and modes of action. Toxicol Sci. 2008 Mar;102(1):3-14.
Begley TH, Hsu W, Noonan G, Diachenko G. Migration of fluorochemical paper additives from food-contact paper into foods and food simulants. Food Addit Contam Part A Chem Anal Control Expo Risk Assess. 2008 Mar;25(3):384-90.
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Boas M, Feldt-Rasmussen U, Main KM. Thyroid effects of endocrine disrupting chemicals. Mol Cell Endocrinol. 2011 Sep 10.
Cheng X, Klaassen CD. Perfluorocarboxylic acids induce cytochrome P450 enzymes in mouse liver through activation of PPAR-alpha and CAR transcription factors. Toxicol Sci. 2008 Nov;106(1):29-36.
Defending Science Perfluorooctanoic Acid http://www.defendingscience.org/case_studies/perfluorooctanoic-acid.cfm
D'Eon JC, Mabury SA. Production of perfluorinated carboxylic acids (PFCAs) from the biotransformation of polyfluoroalkyl phosphate surfactants (PAPS): exploring routes of human contamination. Environ Sci Technol. 2007 Jul 1;41(13):4799-805.
D'eon JC, Mabury SA. Exploring indirect sources of human exposure to perfluoroalkyl carboxylates (PFCAs): evaluating uptake, elimination, and biotransformation of polyfluoroalkyl phosphate esters (PAPs) in the rat. Environ Health Perspect. 2011 Mar;119(3):344-50. Epub 2010 Oct 29.
Dewitt JC, Peden-Adams MM, Keller JM, Germolec DR. Immunotoxicity of Perfluorinated Compounds: Recent Developments. Toxicol Pathol. 2011 Nov 22.
Fromme H, Schlummer M, Möller A, Gruber L, Wolz G, Ungewiss J, Böhmer S, Dekant W, Mayer R, Liebl B, Twardella D. Exposure of an adult population to perfluorinated substances using duplicate diet portions and biomonitoring data. Environ Sci Technol. 2007 Nov 15;41(22):7928-33.
Naile JE, Wiseman S, Bachtold K, Jones PD, Giesy JP. Transcriptional effects of perfluorinated compounds in rat hepatoma cells. Chemosphere. 2012 Jan;86(3):270-7.
NJ Department of Environmental Protection Determination of Perfluorooctanoic Acid (PFOA) in Aqueous Samples January, 2007 http://www.nj.gov/dep/watersupply/pfoa.htm
J Ostertag SK, Chan HM, Moisey J, Dabeka R, Tittlemier SA. Historic dietary exposure to perfluorooctane sulfonate, perfluorinated carboxylates, and fluorotelomer unsaturated carboxylates from the consumption of store-bought and restaurant foods for the Canadian population. Agric Food Chem. 2009 Sep 23;57(18):8534-44.
Reddy DR. Neurology of endemic skeletal fluorosis. Neurol India. 2009 Jan-Feb;57(1):7-12.
U.S. EPA , March 2009 PERFLUOROCARBOXYLIC ACID CONTENT IN 116 ARTICLES OF COMMERCE www.oecd.org/dataoecd/47/50/48125746.pdf
Vestergaard S, Nielsen F, Andersson AM, Hjøllund NH, Grandjean P, Andersen HR, Jensen TK. Association between perfluorinated compounds and time to pregnancy in a prospective cohort of Danish couples attempting to conceive. Hum Reprod. 2012 Jan 13.
Yamashita N, Kannan K, Taniyasu S, Horii Y, Petrick G, Gamo T. A global survey of perfluorinated acids in oceans. Mar Pollut Bull. 2005;51(8-12):658-68.
*These statements have not been evaluated by the FDA. These products are not intended to treat, diagnose, cure, or prevent any disease.