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Food Wrappers, Popcorn Bags Leak Harmful Chemicals


The next time you slide the food wrappers off your fast food or open up a microwave popcorn bag, you are probably getting a dose of harmful chemicals along with the food. Scientists at the University of Toronto report that the chemicals that line junk food wrappers and microwave popcorn bags are leaking into your food.

Food wrappers and popcorn bags contain PFCAs

You won’t see the names listed on a label, but dangerous chemicals like perfluorinated carboxylic acids (PFCAs), which are the byproducts of chemicals used to line junk food wrappers and microwave popcorn bags, are in your food and circulating in your bloodstream right now. The most recognized of the PFCAs are perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA), which have been found in people around the world.

Researchers in Toronto wanted to learn more about PFCAs. According to Jessica D’eon, a graduate student in the University of Toronto’s Department of Chemistry, “we suspected that a major source of human PFCA exposure may be the consumption and metabolism of polyfluoroalkyl phosphate esters or PAPs.” Junk food wrappers and microwave popcorn bags are two sources of this grease-proofing substance that is used to line food packaging.

In the new study, the scientists exposed rats to PAPs orally or by injection and monitored them for three weeks to determine the concentrations of PAPs and PFCA metabolites, including PFOA, in their bloodstream. Previous studies had shown PAP concentrations in humans, and the researchers used these data along with the concentrations found in the rats to calculate PFOA exposure from PAP metabolism in humans.

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From these calculations, they determined that the metabolism of PAPs could be a significant source of PFOAs in humans, along with other PFCAs, according to Scott Mabury, the study’s lead researcher and a professor in the Department of Chemistry at Toronto.

Mabury has been hot on the trail of PFCAs and other fluorinated polymers for about a decade. In 2006, he was quoted in the Toronto Star as saying “There was nothing known about these chemicals when we started investigating five years ago. It was a clean slate for research.”

PFCAs have been discovered around the world and have been linked to cancer and other development problems in animals. They are also expected to persist in the soil and elsewhere in the environment for hundreds of years.

Mabry points out that this study clearly shows that the use of PAPs in food wrappers is a source of human exposure to PFCAs, including PFOA. Although the study does not identify PAPs as the only source of human exposure to PFOA or even if it is the most important one, “we can say unequivocally that PAPs are a source and the evidence from this study suggests this could be significant,” noted Mabry.

Before we can reduce and eliminate exposure to harmful chemicals in our environment, we need to understand the sources of the exposure. This new study from the University of Toronto shows that junk food wrappers and microwave popcorn bags are such sources, and one consumers can do something about.

Environmental Working Group
University of Toronto news release