Chipotle Bowls Contain “Forever Chemicals” That Are Linked to Cancer

By Rob Dillard - Last Updated: August 8, 2019

According to a study conducted by The New Food Economy, Chipotle Mexican Grill’s famous beige colored receptacles, molded fiber bowls which are reputed as compostable, contain cancer-linked per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) which are colloquially referred to as “forever chemicals”. This broad class of more than 4,000 fluorinated compounds fail to naturally biodegrade in the environment.

The author of this study noted that experts consulted informed him that all molded fiber bowls contain PFAS, meaning that despite company claims, bowls used at Chipotle (and Sweetgreen) aren’t truly compostable. In fact, these bowls are likely making compost even more toxic, as they contain hazardous ingredients that never dissipate.

In this study, The New Food Economy collected fiber bowl samples from 14 locations of 8 different New York City restaurants and tested their properties for the presence of PFAS. In total, 18 samples (one a control) were sent to Graham Peaslee, a chemist from the University of Notre Dame, for testing. Peaslee utilized a technique known as Particle-Induced Gamma-ray Emission (PIGE), which is an ion beam analysis that measures a product’s fluorine content.

The Whole Truth

The results of Peaslee’s analysis revealed that only the control sample, a piece of printer paper, had low levels of fluorine, at 33 parts per million (PPM). Each bowl contained high amounts of fluorine, with the bowls’ outsides reading at 1,740 ppm across the samples and the bottom half of the bowl (which contains the food) averaging 1,599 ppm. Combined, the samples averaged 1,670 ppm fluorine, which equated to approximately 50 times what Peaslee found on the control paper. These levels, according to Peaslee, can only be achieved through intentional PFAS treatment.

“The test Graham does is a great screening tool,” said oceanographer Rainer Lohmann, director of the University of Rhode Island’s Lohmann Lab, which studies the way that toxic, man-made chemicals move through waterways. “If a product is showing really high fluorine levels, companies really can’t claim they didn’t use PFAS.”

Unclear Public Health Implications

“The public health implications of this finding are not yet clear,” the author wrote. “The very worst PFAS chemicals are linked to a range of serious health outcomes, from colitis and thyroid disorders to kidney and testicular cancers, and have been mostly phased out of production in the U.S. These bowls are more likely to contain newer varieties that are just as persistent in the environment and are of grave concern to scientists but have not been studied as closely for potential health effects.”

Marty Mulvihill, co-founder of Safer Made, a venture fund that invests in eco-friendly businesses, had a more direct message for patrons consuming food off these bowls. “If it’s possible to avoid them, avoid them.” Mulvihill stated. However, he added that “if your option is eating a cheeseburger versus a salad in a bowl that might have some PFAS, you’re probably okay with that salad. You just don’t want to be eating it all the time, or taking them and microwaving things in it, or eating off them on a daily basis.”

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