Pregnant women should avoid fast-food because of the microplastics found in wrappers: Study

While it may seem common sense, new research warns pregnant women to put down cheeseburgers and chicken nuggets but not for the reasons you may think. 

In a study published last month by researchers from the University of Washington School of Medicine, scientists found that ultra-processed food like the ones you eat at your favorite fast food restaurant is likely contaminated with micro-plastics or phthalates. 

These forever chemicals shed from food wrappers or workers' plastic gloves. These chemicals have been linked to autism, ADHD, preterm birth and low birth weight.

What are microplastics and nanoplastics?

Microplastics are pieces of plastic that measure less than 5 millimeters and nanoplastics measure less than 1 micrometer. So in short, they are very small pieces of plastic that are not easily detectable to the naked eye. 

"We don’t blame the pregnant person here," said researcher Brennan Baker. "We need to call out manufacturers and legislators to offer replacements [in food handling and packaging], and ones that may not be even more harmful."

This is not the first study 

These micro-plastics are not just found in food wrappers. They are unfortunately found in nearly every aspect of our lives. 

A separate study published last year found that everyday consumer products including shower curtains, car upholstery, lunchboxes and shoes contain chemicals that increase growth of uterine tumors known as fibroids.

READ MORE: Study: Consumer products containing phthalates increase risk of uterine tumor growth

In 2023, dozens of companies involved in food packaging received pressure after the toxic industrial compound PFAS was detected in fast-food wrappers, boxes and plates that consumers interact with on a daily basis, the Associated Press previously reported

Environmental and health groups have pushed dozens of fast food companies, supermarket chains and other retail outlets to remove PFAS chemicals from their packaging. 

Known as "forever chemicals" for their persistence in the environment, they have been used for decades to prevent grease, water and other liquids from soaking through wrappers, boxes and bags.

Opponents of the practice argue the packaging poses a danger to consumers as well as the environment since the waste ends up in landfills. in compost or is incinerated where the chemicals can leach into groundwater or soil. They contend there are safer alternatives.

Several groups have maintained that many major brands use packaging with PFAS and that testing at times showed extremely high levels.

A 2017 study by the Massachusetts-based nonprofit research organization Silent Spring Institute found PFAS in almost half of paper wrappers and 20% of boxes from 27 fast food outlets. Tests by Toxic-Free Future in 2018 produced similar results. And, this year, Consumer Reports found eight restaurants, including McDonald’s, Burger King and Cava, had packaging that had more than 100 parts per million of fluorine, which indicates the likely presence of PFAS.

"One of the concerns is that, especially with the pandemic, we’ve seen just this huge increase in food packaging, delivery, takeout," said Sheela Sathyanarayana, a professor of pediatrics at the University of Washington and Seattle Children’s Research Institute whose 2021 study found 16 different PFAS chemicals in the breast milk of mothers.

What are organizations doing about it

The EPA only sets a voluntary health advisory level of 70 parts per trillion for two PFAS chemicals in drinking water. The FDA, which regulates use of certain PFAS chemicals in food packaging, came out in 2020 with a three-year, voluntary phase-out program. The agency is reviewing a petition from environmental groups calling for a PFAS ban in food packaging.

In the U.S., only California sets a limit of 100 parts per million of total fluorine in food packaging.

The absence of federal standards has shifted the fight over PFAS in food packaging to state legislatures.

California, Washington, Vermont, Connecticut, Maryland, Maine, Minnesota and New York have passed bills banning PFAS from being purposely added to food packaging, according to the advocacy group Safer States.

Seven other states are considering similar legislation. Federal legislation has also been introduced.

In Vermont, the push to ban PFAS in packaging was inspired by findings that the chemicals had contaminated some of the state’s drinking water. As a result, the legislature passed a bill last year banning PFAS and other chemicals including bisphenols and phthalates in food packaging as well as in carpeting, ski wax and firefighting foam.

"Most people just look at the tissue paper around their sandwich and they think I got my sandwich. But the reality is that the coating on that sandwich paper is PFAS," said the bill’s author, Democratic state Sen. Ginny Lyons. "It’s not very much chemical but if you eat a lot of wrapped sandwich and use a lot of paper plates over time that chemical accumulates in the body and can cause cancer or other disorders.

The regulations have coincided with bans announced by some of the largest restaurants and retailers.