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Conference Highlights

The good news, however, is that most fast-food packaging did not contain any fluorine, Shaider says. This shows that some manufacturers might be using fluorine compound-free chemicals to get the water- and grease-resistant effects they want without using compounds that carry a health risk, she says. Not all of the chemicals in the fluorine family are harmful. However, experts are most concerned with a group of fluorinated chemicals called per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, or PFASs.

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These chemicals stay in the body and in the environment for long periods of time. When the researchers analyzed a subset of 20 pieces of fast-food packaging, they found PFASs in all of them, and six contained perfluorooctanoic acid PFOA. PFOA is one of the fluorine compounds that have been most strongly linked to health problems.

Schaider says this study shows that fluorine can be a useful marker for the presence of harmful PFASs. Preliminary research suggests that these substitutes also could be linked to some of the same dangerous health effects. Food and Drug Administration regulations, providing the safe delivery of foods and beverages to consumers.

Aside from cutting down on fast food altogether, Hansen says, one thing consumers can do is to limit the amount of time they leave your food in its packaging. If you can, once you arrive home or at the office, take food out of wrappers and use your own plates and bowls instead. You might also want to consider what type of packaging your food is delivered in. The researchers found that more than half of dessert and bread wrappers and 38 percent of burger and sandwich wrappers they tested in their study contained fluorine.

Just 20 percent of paperboard, which might hold French fries, was found to have fluorine.

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I've spent years tackling subjects from urban health to medical marijuana to behavioral science—both as a city reporter for my hometown public radio station in Tulsa, Okla. Now I cover health and food at Consumer Reports.

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Regulation of food packaging

Along with their use in the fast food industry, fluorinated chemicals -- sometimes called PFASs -- are used "to give water-repellant, stain-resistant, and non-stick properties to consumer products such as furniture, carpets, outdoor gear, clothing, cosmetics and cookware," according to a news release that accompanied the report. These are long-chain PFASs that have largely been phased out, in favor of shorter-chain compounds that are thought to have shorter half-lives in the human body, but these shortened forms have not yet been thoroughly studied. As these chemicals are used in many everyday products, consumers are exposed to them frequently, and the same health effects may not be true for all of them.

Previous studies have shown that PFASs can migrate from food packaging into the food you eat, said Laurel Schaider , a research scientist at the Silent Spring Institute and one of the authors of the paper. Scientists at the five institutions that collaborated on the report collected more than samples of fast food packaging from 27 leading US chains.

The types of packaging were split into six categories: food contact paper sandwich wrappers and pastry bags , food contact paperboard boxes for fries or pizza , non-contact paper outer bags , paper cups, other beverage containers milk and juice containers and miscellaneous lids.

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  7. Food contact papers were divided into three subcategories: sandwiches, burgers and fried foods; Tex-Mex; and desserts and breads. Non-contact paper, paper cups and miscellaneous all tested negative for fluorine. The researchers did not provide any chain-specific data in order to compare fast food restaurants or determine which brands scored better or worse than average.

    Food Packaging -- Roles, Materials, and Environmental Issues -

    Short of asking that your next burger be served in between two lids, there isn't a whole lot you can do to avoid PFAS exposure once you've chosen to eat at a fast food restaurant. Fast food serves up phthalates, too, study suggests. 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.

    Join the conversation. 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.