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McDonald's Food Packaging Contains This Cancer-Causing Chemical, New Report Finds

Packaging made with PFAS often resembles cardboard, but oils from greasy foods do not soak through. 

We all know that fast-food isn't the healthiest for us, but a new report has revealed that it might not be the best for preventing disease, either.

According to a recent investigation from Consumer Reports, the packaging used for food at many major fast-food chains including McDonald's, Chick-Fil-A, Burger King, and Sweet Green contain a cancer-causing chemical called PFAS, or per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances.

The same chemical is used to form the nonstick coating on pans, make fabrics and carpets stain-resistant, and create water-resistant clothing. Packaging made with PFAS often resembles paper or cardboard, but oils from greasy foods do not soak through.

Health and environmental advocates are pushing for PFAS use to be restricted, especially in food packaging. In response, McDonald's has vowed to end the use of the chemical by 2025.

McDonald's fries
Courtesy of McDonald's

Related: 8 Worst Fast-Food Burgers to Stay Away From Right Now

"In recent decades, PFAS exposure has been linked to a growing list of problems, including immune system suppression, lower birth weight, and increased risk for some cancers," the report states. "This raises alarms about the use of these compounds, especially in items such as burger wrappers and salad bowls."

"We know that these substances migrate into food you eat," says Justin Boucher, an environmental engineer at the Food Packaging Forum, a nonprofit research organization based in Switzerland. "It's clear, direct exposure."

To see how often PFAS are still found in food containers, Consumer Reports (CR) tested more than 100 food packages from restaurants and grocery chains. The group found these chemicals in many types of packaging—from paper bags and wrappers to single-use paper plates.

"PFAS were in some packaging from every retailer we looked at," the report states.

That included many fast-food chains, such as McDonald's, as well as Burger King and Chick-fil-A, both of which publicly committed to reducing PFAS in their packaging after being told of CR's test results.

Chains that promote healthier fare, such as Cava and Trader Joe's, also had some packaging that contained PFAS, CR's tests found.

In any case, it's a good sign that fast-food giants are working away from using these chemicals in their products.

"The CDC states that some studies show PFAS exposure may affect growth, learning, and behavior of infants and older children, in addition to other health effects," said Tracy Gregoire, Healthy Children Project Director of the Learning Disabilities Association of America. "There are safer alternatives to these harmful forever chemicals, and we are thrilled that McDonald's is joining a growing number of quick-service restaurants."

For more on what's in your food, check out What Is Titanium Dioxide? And Why It's in Your Food.

Kristen Warfield
Kristen Warfield is a graduate of SUNY New Paltz’s journalism program in the Hudson Valley region of New York. Read more about Kristen