On the heels of the decision last month by the U.S. Food & Drug Administration (FDA) to allow continued use of the chemical bisphenol-A (BPA) in food packaging, a new report today, “If Food is in Plastic, What’s in the Food?” in the Washington Post, produced in collaboration with the Food & Environment Reporting Network, looks at how people are exposed to BPA and other chemicals through food-contact plastics and explores the potential impacts on human health. The article, by reporter Susan Freinkel, author of Plastic: A Toxic Love Story, examines the emerging science on such chemicals which may interfere with natural hormones and be harmful at extremely low levels of exposure.
BPA and phthalates are among the 3,000 chemicals that the FDA has ruled safe if they get into food in very low amounts. The report notes that a number of these chemicals used in food processing and packaging materials have shown up in food. Some scientists question their safety, in part because these chemicals have not yet been studied for their cumulative effects. In addition, research proves difficult because companies often consider their formulas proprietary.
“Finding out which chemicals might have seeped into your groceries is nearly impossible, given the limited information collected and disclosed by regulators, the scientific challenges of this research and the secrecy of the food and packaging industries, which view their components as proprietary information,” Freinkel writes. “Although scientists are learning more about the pathways of these substances – and their potential effect on health – there is an enormous debate among scientists, policymakers and industry experts about what levels are safe.”
Freinkel explains how plastic food packaging is a major source of these potentially harmful chemicals, which most Americans harbor in their bodies. For instance, studies have shown phthalates—a family of chemicals used in lubricants and solvents and which imparts flexibility to plastics—passing into food from processing equipment and food-prep gloves, gaskets and seals on non-plastic containers, inks used on labels—which can permeate packaging—and even the plastic film used in agriculture.
She highlights a forthcoming study that found the phthalate DEHP in many of the 72 different grocery items sampled. Studies have associated low-dose exposure to this chemical with male reproductive disorders, thyroid dysfunction, and subtle behavioral changes.
Last month, the FDA denied a petition to ban BPA, saying in a statement that while “some studies have raised questions as to whether BPA may be associated with a variety of health effects, there remain serious questions about these studies, particularly as they relate to humans and the public health impact.”
You can read the full report here, including additional reporting on plastic alternatives.