Seven years ago, Ally Kent felt a lump in her breast that was definitely not supposed to be there. Several medical examinations, ultrasounds, and biopsies later, she was diagnosed with breast tumors that would require a lifetime of doctor visits. Ally was forced to confront the idea of the last thing anyone could wish to happen to them: cancer. 13% of women in the United States share her problem: breast tissue with abnormally high sensitivity to the hormone estrogen.

Hormones are chemical signals that travel through our bloodstream to send messages instructing different parts of our body on how to function. They are essential to ensuring that our biological processes operate properly. Estrogen is a hormone that is particularly important for women; it stimulates the growth of breast tissue. However, when estrogen’s signaling system is out of whack, it can cause breast tissue to grow uncontrollably. In other words, it can cause cancer.

“Women have malfunctioning estrogen signaling because of toxic chemicals in the environment”

A prevalent reason why many women have malfunctioning estrogen signaling is exposure to toxic chemicals in the environment. One chemical directly associated with breast cancer is fluorotelomer alcohol, or FTOH. FTOH is a xenoestrogen, which is basically a molecule close enough in structure to estrogen that it tricks your body into thinking it actually is estrogen. Think of it like estrogen’s evil twin sister that impersonates her without anyone in her life being able to tell the difference. So, when FTOH enters your body, it tells your breast tissue to grow in the same way that estrogen does. The key distinction though is that while estrogen tells your breast tissue to grow during natural developmental phases like puberty or pregnancy, FTOH tells your breast tissue to grow simply whenever it's around. FTOH can induce up to 2-3 fold increases in breast cell numbers and thus produces cancerous cell lines. Besides breast cancer, FTOH is also associated with kidney damage, liver damage, and infertility. It’s safe to say that FTOH is not the sister you want around.

“Despite its dangerous potential, FTOH is more common than you’d think”

Despite its difficult pronunciation and dangerous potential, FTOH is more common than you’d think. In fact, it's ingrained in the daily diets of people around the world. Every time you opt for a greasy slice of pizza after a night out or order a burger when you’re too lazy to cook, you could be sending loads of FTOH right into your body. Many fast food chains use chemicals like FTOH as a cheap way to make their packaging products grease-resistant. An investigation  released by Consumer Reports has found that FTOH exists in food packaging from a variety of popular food chains. Apparently, you really are what you eat.

The study investigated the organic fluorine concentrations in 118 frequently-used products from 24 leading food retailers, including Nathan's Famous, Cava, Arby's, Burger King, Chick-fil-A, Stop & Shop, and Sweetgreen. The presence of organic fluorine in a product tells us that it likely has Per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, or PFAs, which is the class of harmful chemicals that FTOH belongs to. PFAs are often called “forever chemicals” because they do not break down naturally and so have been found to accumulate to troubling levels in humans.

“Over half of observed products had high levels of fluorine”

The study found organic fluorine in more than half of the food packaging tested. Almost a third — 37 products — had organic fluorine levels above 20 ppm, and 22 were above 100 ppm. This is dangerous because these harmful substances travel from packaging and seep into the food that you eat, especially when food is fatty, salty, or acidic. So, according to the study, your favorite foods do more than just keep you full — they might have the potential to completely disrupt your hormonal system.

"Some fast food chains are phasing out FTOH"

In response to complaints form health and environmental activists, some fast food chains have committed to phasing out FTOH and other PFAs. McDonald's, Burger King, and Chick-fil-A publicly committed to reducing PFAs in their packaging by 2025 — but the study still found dangerous chemicals present. The good news is, companies are capable of making PFA-free wrappers, aware of their dangerous effects, and are working on  eliminating them.

We’ll never know if it was her diet or some other factor that caused Ally’s tumors. But if she had the chance to go back in time and change the foods that she had eaten, she would. Today, Ally dedicates her time to raising awareness on the potential harmful effects of hormone-disrupting chemicals. Next time you think about a midnight run to McDonald's, you might want to think again. 


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Consumer Reports.