One of the most common sources of fluoride exposure for Americans is their tap water, as many municipalities still fluoridate their water. But did you know your FOOD may also expose you to fluoride on a regular basis?
Not only are certain pesticides fluoridated, such as cryolite,1 food processors may also use sulfuryl fluoride as a direct fumigant on certain foods, and for preventing pests in closed storage structures. Fast food wrappers are yet another source of fluoride, scientists warn.
Pesticides and Fumigants May Turn Food Into Source of Fluoride
“Unlike virtually every other western country, the EPA [Environmental Protection Agency] does not require that food processors remove food prior to the fumigation. As a result, any food that is being stored in the facility during a structural fumigation will be contaminated with fluoride.”
According to EPA estimates, foods most commonly fumigated include cocoa powder (100 percent), dried beans (100 percent), walnuts (99 percent) and dried fruits (69 percent).
And, while only about 3 percent of rice is fumigated, the levels of fluoride in fumigated brown rice specifically tends to be the highest (12.5 parts per million [ppm] compared to 8.4 ppm for cocoa powder).4
The reason certain items, such as cocoa, have a 100 percent chance of being contaminated with fluoride is because the EPA allows direct application of sulfuryl fluoride on such crops.
Direct application is also permitted on coffee. According to a 2005 editorial by the late Albert Burgstahler, PH.D., who was a professor emeritus of chemistry, “Fluoride residues in food fumigated with sulfuryl fluoride are excessively high and are at levels known to cause serious adverse health effects, including crippling skeletal fluorosis.”5
Non-organic grape juice is also best avoided, as the fluoridated pesticide cryolite is commonly used on grapes grown in the U.S.6
Fast Food Wrappers Are a Common Source of Fluoride Exposure
According to recent research,7,8,9,10,11,12,13,14,15 about one-third of fast food wrappers and containers also contain fluorine, which suggests perfluorinated chemicals (PFCs) were used to give the paper that slick surface, making it oil and grease resistant.
PFCs such as perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA, widely used to make non-stick cookware) and perfluorooctanesulfonic acid (PFOS, a key ingredient in stain-resistant fabrics) are associated with a wide array of health problems, including cancer, heart disease, immune and thyroid dysfunction, infertility, low birth weight and developmental problems.
In all, some 400 samples of food packaging from 27 fast food chains in the U.S. were tested between 2014 and 2015. This included packaging from Jimmy John’s, Quiznos, Starbucks and Dunkin’ Donuts in the Boston, Seattle, Washington D.C., San Francisco and Grand Rapids areas.
On average, 33 percent of them contained fluorine. Dessert and bread wrappers were affected the most, with 56 percent containing fluorine, whereas only 20 percent of paperboard samples (such as pizza boxes and French fry containers) were affected.
Of the 27 restaurant chains, Jimmy John’s, Taco Time and Quiznos fared the worst, with 100 percent of the samples collected from these chains testing positive for fluorine.
Eighty percent of wrappers from Chick-fil-A also tested positive, followed by Chipotle, at 65 percent.16
PFOA and PFOS Were Phased Out in 2011 but Still Appear in Use
The amount depends on the temperature of the food and how long it remains in contact with the wrapper. As a general rule, hot food items tend to release more chemicals than cold ones.
American manufacturers voluntarily agreed to phase out PFOA and PFOS in 2011 due to concerns about their safety, but other countries still use them and, clearly, some companies are still using them in the production of food packaging.
Dr. Philippe Grandjean, an environmental health researcher and professor at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, commented on the findings, saying:
“Perfluorinated compounds come from a variety of consumer products, and clearly the food wrapping materials likely constitute an important source. Limiting our current exposures should be regarded a public health priority.”
How to Avoid Fluoride From Fast Food Wrappers
Lead author Laurel Schaider, Ph.D., a research scientist at the Silent Spring Institute, told CNN:20
“‘Unfortunately, for consumers, there’s no easy way to tell — just by looking at packaging — whether or not it contains fluorinated chemicals …
For people who wish to reduce their exposure to these chemicals, they may be able to take some steps … to reduce that migration from packaging into food — for instance, by taking the food out of the packaging sooner rather than later.’
You could also ask that your fries or dessert be served in a paper cup or a noncontact paper bag. This is the outer bag all your items are usually put into when you get your food.
More than anything, Schaider urges consumers to put pressure on their favorite fast food chains to switch to packaging that doesn’t contain fluorinated chemicals.
‘I think that this study provides yet another reason to support the idea that eating more fresh food and more home-cooked meals is better for our health,’ she said …”
Environmental Working Group Calls for End of PFC Use in Food Wrappers
In a companion report,21 the Environmental Working Group (EWG) urges fast food companies to stop using fluorinated compounds in food packaging altogether, and calls for the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to further restrict the use of these compounds in products that come into contact with food. According to the EWG:
“The FDA has approved 20 next-generation PFCs specifically for coating paper and paperboard used to serve food.
These chemicals have not been adequately tested for safety, and trade secrecy laws mean that, in some cases, the limited safety data submitted to the EPA does not publicly disclose the identity of the specific chemicals or even the companies submitting them for approval.
But what little information manufacturers have provided to regulators is troubling. In documents filed with the EPA, DuPont reported that a next-generation chemical used to produce food contact paper, called GenX, could pose a ‘substantial risk of injury,’ including cancerous tumors in the pancreas and testicles, liver damage, kidney disease and reproductive harm …
[R]etired EPA toxicologist and senior risk assessor Deborah Rice[,Ph.D.,] said GenX has ‘the same constellation of [health] effects you see with PFOA. There’s no way you can call this a safe substitute.’ PFC-free paper is readily available, as shown by the fact that the tests detected no fluorine in more than half of the paper samples.”
The FDA did take action against three specific kinds of PFCs in food packaging just last year.22,23 Based on safety information, it withdrew its approval for diethanolamine salts of mono- and bis, pentanoic acid and perfluoroalkyl-substituted phosphate ester acids.
None of these PFCs may be used in the manufacturing of oil and water repellants for paper and paperboard that will come in contact with food. It seems it would be wise to ban all PFCs from such items, considering the fact that many of them have similar health effects.
Some of the restaurant chains have responded favorably, promising to look into the matter and make changes as needed. Chris Arnold, a spokesman for Chipotle, told Bloomberg24 the study “seems to suggest that there is room for improvement,” adding the company is “in the process of obtaining documentation from our suppliers that the packaging materials they supply to Chipotle are PFC-free.”
Susan Lintonsmith, CEO of Quiznos also told Bloomberg the company “takes food safety very seriously,” and that they are “working with our suppliers to fully understand the situation.”
Other Common Household Sources of PFCs
Aside from fast food wrappers, many other water-repellent, stain-resistant and non-stick household items can contain PFCs. Some of the most common examples include:25
- Microwave popcorn bags and candy wrappers
- Non-stick cookware
- Stain-resistant coatings used on carpets, upholstery and fabrics, and water-resistant clothing
- Cleaning, personal care products (such as dental floss) and cosmetics
- Paints, varnishes and sealants
General Guidelines to Limit Toxic Exposures
While 1 in 4 deaths is thought to be related to living and working in a toxic environment,26,27,28,29 your diet, personal care and common household products likely pose the most immediate risk to your and your family’s health. When it comes to PFCs and other fluoride compounds, avoiding fast food and fluoridated water are two ways to cut your risk.
Unfortunately, fluoride is not the only hazardous chemical to watch out for, and it’s not the only chemical you may be exposed to via food and beverages. Others include endocrine disrupting chemicals (EDCs) such as plasticizers, which can also migrate from packaging into food and drinks.30
To limit your exposure to PFCs and EDCs, as well as many other toxins, keep the following guidelines in mind when shopping for food, personal care and household products.
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