Toronto, Ont. —  In a new report released today, Environmental Defence, the Mind the Store campaign, Toxic-Free Future, and its partners found that nearly half of all take-out food packaging tested from six popular food chains likely contains toxic PFAS (per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances)—chemicals known to threaten human health and the environment.

The new study, Packaged in Pollution: Are food chains using PFAS in packaging?, analyzed packaging from top fast-food chains Burger King, McDonald’s, and Wendy’s as well as top health-minded food chains including Freshii. The testing suggests toxic PFAS content in both McDonald’s “Big Mac” container and Burger King’s “Whopper” wrapper as well as the health-conscious chain’s salad bowls.

“In a pandemic where immunocompromised people are among the most vulnerable and where takeout has become the go-to eating out option due to physical distancing measures, there is no room for chemicals that could weaken the immune system in the wrappers and bowls that package our meals,” says Muhannad Malas, Toxics program manager at Environmental Defence. “Disposable packaging coated with toxics that don’t break down in the environment are a double whammy to Canadians’ health and only worsen our public health and waste crises.”

PFAS are chemicals used to impart stain, grease, and water resistance to food packaging, carpeting, upholstery, and clothing. Scientists have found links between exposures to PFAS and a wide range of health problems including liver damage, immune system impacts, decreased fertility and cancer. Because of their extreme persistence in the environment – a property that earned them the name “forever chemicals” – toxic exposures will continue even after the packaging is thrown away. Evidence shows that these chemicals can make their way back to people through drinking water, food, and air as well as food crops and gardens which become polluted with PFAS-containing compost.

“Indigenous knowledge tells us that we need to think seven generations out. The use of PFAS in food contact materials is thinking about 10 minutes into the future – I don’t want moisture from the food I’m eating right now to drip on me. But PFAS chemicals, such as those used in these food contact materials, last forever,” says Miriam Diamond, Professor of Earth Sciences at the University of Toronto. “Discarding food contact materials into waste streams means that inevitably, some of these PFAS chemicals will enter the environment where they can contaminate our water from here to the Arctic.”

The testing found that 14 out of 29 unique sample items (38 sample items including replicates) sent to an independent laboratory to measure total fluorine tested above the fluorine screening level, suggesting toxic PFAS content. Two packaging categories— paper bags used for greasy foods along with molded fiber bowls and trays— were most frequently found to potentially contain PFAS. Paper bags sampled included a French fry bag from McDonald’s, a chicken nuggets bag from Burger King, and cookie bags from all three burger chains.

Mounting evidence highlighting the dangers posed by PFAS have compelled many jurisdictions including Denmark, Washington, and Maine to take action by restricting the use of these chemicals in food packaging.

Without national regulation of toxic PFAS, accelerated action from food retailers in addressing PFAS in food-packaging materials is necessary to reduce exposures to people and the environment. Other major retailers and restaurants that have committed to moving away from PFAS include Chipotle, Panera Bread, Taco Bell, and Whole Foods Market.

“Multiple major food chains have now announced new policies on PFAS. So, clearly, safer alternatives exist and are being used,” says Mike Schade, Mind the Store campaign director. “Those that haven’t stepped up have the ability to do so.”

Today, Environmental Defence launched a petition to Burger King, Freshii, McDonald’s and Wendy’s urging them to take action by committing to the elimination of PFAS in their food-packaging materials. A similar petition has been launched in the U.S. by the Mind the Store campaign focused on McDonald’s.

About ENVIRONMENTAL DEFENCE (environmentaldefence.ca): Environmental Defence is a leading Canadian advocacy organization that works with government, industry and individuals to defend clean water, a safe climate and healthy communities.

About MIND THE STORE CAMPAIGN (mindthestore.org):  The U.S.-based Mind the Store campaign challenges big retailers to eliminate toxic chemicals and replace them with safer alternatives. The campaign coordinates the annual retailer report card that benchmarks and scores major retailers on their safer chemicals policies and implementation programs.

About TOXIC-FREE FUTURE (toxicfreefuture.org): Toxic-Free Future advocates for the use of safer products, chemicals, and practices through advanced research, grassroots organizing, and consumer engagement to ensure a healthier tomorrow.

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For more information or to arrange an interview, please contact:

Sarah Jamal, Environmental Defence, sjamal@environmentaldefence.ca, 905-921-7786