In February, scientists in the United States published research that showed that more than a third of all fast-food packaging contained fluorinated chemicals, which are a family of chemicals linked to cancers, elevated cholesterol, decreased fertility and thyroid problems among other health effects.

Now, research teams from the University of Alabama and the University of Notre Dame, which conduted the original study, have developed a way of radio-labeling three forms of these chemicals – more specifically perfluorinated and polyfluorinated alkyl substances – and track these chemicals after they enter the body. This will help in identifying which organs and tissues are most affected by the chemicals.

The researchers placed tracer chemicals and tagged them to see where they end up in mice. They did this by using a cyclotron, a type of particle accelerator that moves protons along a spiral path to strike a material to produce radioisotopes. These radioisotopes were then chemically attached to molecules that home in on biological targets.

Each of the tracer chemicals showed some degree in many organs and tissues, the highest in the liver, stomach, lungs and the femur bone. Significant amounts of the chemicals also landed up in the kidneys, heart, skin, muscle and brain.

Fluorinated chemicals are often used in stain-resistant products, firefighting materials and non-stick cookware and are not meant for ingestion. But, as previous studies have shown, these chemical often contaminate food and accumulate int he body when consumed.

The radio-labelling experiment in mice, published in the Journal of Environment Science and Technology, opens the possibility of directly measuring the uptake of fluorinated chemicals in humans in a subsequent study.

Cyclotron used to create tracer chemicals. (Image: University of Alabama at Birmingham)