Burgers, fries, cookies and other menu items at the world’s largest fast food chain will no longer come with a side of “forever chemicals” after McDonalds phases out toxic per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances called PFAS from its food packaging over the next several years.
This week, the restaurant giant announced that it would stop using food wrapping treated with PFAS chemicals, a move that follows pressure from advocacy groups who’ve targeted McDonalds and other fast chains over the past year, hoping to convince them to ditch the chemicals out of concern they’re getting into humans and accumulating in landfills.
Those groups notched a win this week, although they urged the company to move faster to eliminate the chemical group use. There’s hope that McDonalds’ move away from PFAS will have a domino effect on other fast food chains.
McDonalds said it previously stopped using the long-chain compounds PFOS and PFOA in 2008, and “we’re proud to take another step in our product stewardship journey with our commitment to remove all added fluorinated compounds from our guest packaging materials globally by 2025.”
The company has more than 38,000 locations worldwide.
Advocates in Michigan celebrated the news, which follows the adoption of new state rules last year that severely limit the allowable levels of some PFAS in drinking water.
Reducing the amount of PFAS in single-use items like food packaging can drop the amount of such chemicals in landfills, where the robust compounds concentrate in leachate that’s treated by wastewater plants which aren’t usually able to remove PFAS from their discharge.
The result is toxic compounds that don’t readily break down in nature or people’s bodies migrating from discarded consumables to surface water and drinking water supplies.
Exposure to PFAS has been linked to thyroid disease, high cholesterol, damaged immune system response and other health problems in humans.
“The commitment from the largest fast food-chain in the world, McDonald’s, will help drive PFAS out of food packaging elsewhere, too,” said Mara Herman, a health policy specialist at the Ann Arbor-based Ecology Center. “It furthers the larger mission we are actively pursuing of eliminating non-essential uses of PFAS. We have to get PFAS out of products to get these harmful pollutants out of our drinking water.”
Concern over PFAS chemicals in drinking water rose to prominence in Michigan several years ago upon discovery of sky-high levels of groundwater pollution near Rockford, where footwear giant Wolverine World Wide dumped the chemicals into unlined landfills years ago.
Subsequent statewide drinking water testing found at least trace levels of the compounds in water supplies serving about 1.9 million people.
Municipal wastewater has emerged as a significant source of PFAS contamination entering the environment, as well as the application of wastewater biosolids on cropland. Both pathways have been under study by Michigan regulators for several years and the state has reported some success in reducing the chemical load exiting wastewater plants.
Statewide, there are 152 locations under investigation where the chemicals exceed new state thresholds in groundwater developed at the direction of Gov. Gretchen Whitmer.
Michigan launched an epidemiological health study last fall in Kalamazoo and Kent counties, where people exposed to high PFAS levels in drinking water through the former municipal supply in Parchment and Cooper Township, and contaminated groundwater in the Rockford and Belmont area, will have blood samples analyzed over the next several years.
The state is also launching an assessment of PFAS exposure in Oscoda, where contamination from the former Wurtsmith Air Force Base has spread through water and wildlife.
Nationally, movement toward federal rules to regulate PFAS in drinking water failed to gain traction under the Trump administration and safety standards vary among states that have developed their own. Issue advocates are hopeful the incoming Joe Biden administration will move quickly to develop new regulations this year.
mlive.com, 15 January 2021