Chemicals in fast food wrappers may make you infertile, study warns

Is too much Deliveroo or Seamless making you infertile? Regularly eating takeaways may lead to a lower sperm count because ‘burger wrappers and pizza boxes contain toxic chemicals that enter the body’

  • People who regularly ate fast food found to have more dangerous PFAs in blood 
  • Chemicals are linked to cancer, infertility, birth defects and thyroid problems 
  • PFAs appear in wrappers, boxes for fries and pizza and soft drink plastic cups

Frequently eating fast food may raise your risk of infertility and cancer – but not for the reason you may think. 

Researchers analysed the blood of 10,000 volunteers in search of toxic chemicals called PFAs, known as the ‘forever chemicals’.

Results showed those who regularly ate takeaways had significantly more PFAs in their blood, compared to those who cooked at home.  

PFAs are popular in the fast food industry for being grease-proof and durable. They appear in burger wrappers, pastry bags and pizza boxes.

Frequently eating takeaway meals may raise your risk of infertility and cancer due to toxic chemicals found in fast food packaging (stock)

The man-made chemicals have been linked to infertility, as well as cancer, thyroid disease and high cholesterol.

Researchers from the Silent Spring Institute in Newton, Massachusetts, looked at data taken from 10,106 participants in the US.

The volunteers were asked detailed questions about what they ate in the last 24 hours, seven days, 30 days, and 12 months.

The participants provided blood samples that were then analysed for a number of different PFAs chemicals.

People who ate home-cooked meals more often had significantly lower levels of PFAs in their bodies, the researchers found.

Those who consumed more fast food or ate more frequently at restaurants showed higher levels of the toxic compounds in their blood.

And the scientists found volunteers who consumed more microwave popcorn had significantly higher levels of PFAs, consistent with previous studies. 

Manufacturers put high levels of the dangerous compounds into popcorn bags for their non-stick properties. 

WHAT ARE PFAS, AND ARE THEY HARMFUL? 

PFAs are synthetic chemicals found in many products, including food packaging, household cleaners and nonstick cookware.

Certain types of PFAs – such as perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) and perfluorooctane sulfonate (PFOS) -don’t break down in the environment or in the human body.

The first PFAs were invented in the 1930s, but today more than 3,000 synthetic chemicals are classified as PFAs.

They have wide-ranging applications, such as in grease-resistant microwave-popcorn bags, carpets that resist stains, and pipes and wires that resist corrosion.

PFOA and PFOS have been linked with numerous adverse health effects in animal studies.

They have shown to increase tumours in the liver, pancreas and testicles of mice, as well as reducing their fertility.

Other possible risks include weight gain, hormonal changes, thyroid disruption, low birth weight and inflammatory bowel disease.

When products made from PFAs are discarded, they may leach chemicals into landfill sites that could enter water and food chains.

Makers do the same with pizza boxes to prevent grease from soaking through.

The team of academics said the findings, published in the journal Environmental Health Perspectives, suggest the PFAs leach into our meals from food packaging. 

Lead author Dr Laurel Schaider, an environmental chemist at Silent Spring, said: ‘This is the first study to observe a link between different sources of food and PFAs exposures in the US population.

‘Our results suggest migration of PFAs chemicals from food packaging into food can be an important source of exposure to these chemicals.’

Co-author Kathryn Rodgers, a staff scientist at Silent Spring, said the findings should help customers avoid certain foods.

She added: ‘The general conclusion here is the less contact your food has with food packaging, the lower your exposures to PFAs and other harmful chemicals.

‘These latest findings will hopefully help consumers avoid these exposures and spur manufacturers to develop safer food packaging materials.’

Tam Fry, chair of the National Obesity Forum in the UK, said: ‘Dr Schaider and her colleagues have been warning about the health effects of PFAs for years now but few people in the food packaging industry have needed her. 

‘Sadly, those that have dome so and made adjustments to their containers, have acted voluntarily with little effect. 

‘Maybe, just maybe, the current furore over plastics and the damage they are causing will inspire governments globally to insist that industry quickly ups its game, dictates what improvements should be made and penalises the companies who fail to comply. Since that may take some time, in the meantime just cut down on fast food.’  

Recent studies have suggested two commonly found PFAS compounds may cause male infertility. 

In November 2018, researcher in Veneto, Italy, linked PFOA and PFOS, two of the most commonly found PFAS compounds, to lower sperm count and smaller penis size. 

The scientists compared male high school students who had been exposed to high levels of PFOA and PFOS in Veneto to young men who hadn’t been exposed.

They found that those in the exposed group had shorter penises, lower sperm counts and lower sperm mobility.

The chemicals ‘have a substantial impact on human male health as they directly interfere with hormonal pathways potentially leading to male infertility,’ the scientists concluded in the study.

Silent Spring researchers linked fast food to PFAs in 2017, after analysing 400 food products from 27 fast food restaurants across the US.

They found almost half of paper packaging and 20 per cent of paperboard samples, such as boxes for fries and pizza, contained PFAs.

Tex-Mex food packaging and dessert and bread wrappers, in particular, were most likely to contain fluorine compared with other categories of packaging.

There are over 3,000 different types of PFAs and most are not harmful to humans.

But certain versions – such as perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) and perfluorooctane sulfonate (PFOS) – don’t break down in the environment or in the body and can trigger a host of health problems.  

PFOA and PFOS have been linked with numerous adverse health effects in animal studies.

They have shown to increase tumours in the liver, pancreas and testicles of mice, as well as reducing their fertility.

Other possible risks include weight gain, hormonal changes, thyroid disruption, low birth weight and inflammatory bowel disease.

Karis Betts, health information manager at Cancer Research UK, said : ‘Considering all the scientific evidence available, there’s no need to worry about chemicals from food packaging affecting your risk of developing cancer. 

‘But we do know that obesity is the second biggest cause of cancer, so it’s a good idea to cut back on takeaways, which are often high in fat, salt and sugar. 

‘Try making a homemade ‘fakeaway’ instead, loaded with fruit, veg and wholegrains, as a healthier option.’ 

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