Scientists say lax regulation of chemicals in food packaging endangers human health

Nine months after U.S. regulators found an industrial “forever chemical” in chocolate cake at levels some 250 times higher than federal recommendations, nearly three dozen independent scientists from 11 countries are warning that inadequate global regulations of chemicals in food packaging pose a growing risk to human health.

In a consensus statement published yesterday in the journal Environmental Health, the scientists pointed to critical gaps in information needed to assess risks and safeguard public health based on their analysis of more than 1,200 peer-reviewed studies. 

Jane Muncke, managing director of the Swiss charity Food Packaging Forum and one of the statement’s authors, says it was a surprise to discover just how many chemicals are approved for  food packaging. About a decade ago, researchers identified nearly 6,000 authorized chemicals, then in 2017 a European Commission study flagged close to 8,000. “Now the latest number we’ve produced is almost 12,000,” says Muncke. “It just keeps growing and growing.”

Few of those chemicals have been adequately studied to determine what risks they may pose to consumers. 

Scientists have known since the 1950s that chemicals can leach from packaging into food. And analyses of people’s blood, urine and breastmilk reveal widespread exposure to compounds linked to chronic diseases, cancer, immune dysfunction and hormone disruption. These include per- and polyfluorinated substances (PFAS), known as “forever chemicals” because they don’t break down in the body or the environment, which are used to make pizza boxes and popcorn bags grease-resistant; bisphenol A (BPA), a component of plastic bottles and can coatings; and perchlorate, used to reduce static in dry food packaging. 

Although there’s hard evidence that these chemicals migrate from food packaging — studies have documented PFAS, BPA and other chemicals leaching from cans, beverage cartons and plastic packaging into seafood, milk, flour and other staples — Muncke says “there’s no requirement for industry to tell us where they’re putting which chemicals and at what levels.”

As a result, the scientists say, current safety assessments of food contact chemicals are “ineffective at protecting human health.”

Lack of transparency 

Companies often cite proprietary concerns to withhold basic information about the chemicals they’re using in food packaging, even though researchers have found hazardous chemicals on lists of approved substances. But regardless, toxicity testing for many of the substances added to food packaging is either limited or nonexistent. Regulators don’t know the health effects of the PFAS they found in chocolate cake, for example, and have set health advisories for only two chemicals from the PFAS family — and only for drinking water, not for food. Meanwhile, the PFAS group of chemicals includes nearly 5,000 substances.

But regulators don’t require companies to provide samples of the chemicals they use, so independent scientists can’t identify all the compounds leaching into food, assess their toxicity or measure people’s overall exposures. As a result, the authors of the statement say, it’s impossible to know whether the chemicals winding up in food are safe. 

Still, based on what’s known, the Swiss Food Control Authority estimated that materials migrating from food packaging may reach levels at least 100 times higher than those of pesticide residues on food.

“The safety of the end consumer of a given food product is of absolute importance,” says Stephen Klump, a representative of the Food Safety Alliance for Packaging, which advises the Institute of Packaging Professionals. He says he welcomes discussions with the authors of the paper. 

Tracey Woodruff, a former senior scientist at the Environmental Protection Agency who now directs the Program on Reproductive Health and the Environment at the University of California, San Francisco, says, “Food is … maybe the most important source of exposure for many chemicals.” Woodruff, who wasn’t involved in the study, says the EPA should require companies to submit analytic standards for every chemical they register so researchers can test for them. “There’s still a lot that’s unknown.”

Regulators should require companies to provide enough information about what they’re using so scientists can figure out if their products are safe, Woodruff says. “There are lots of methods that can be used to at least do a quick and dirty screen of whether chemicals are toxic or not,” she says. “We should not require human evidence of harm before we take regulatory action.” 

Regulation lags behind science

As regulators charged with protecting public health approve more and more chemicals that could taint food, they’ve failed to keep pace with scientific advances to gauge the risks, Muncke and her colleagues say.

Risk assessments still cling to the outdated adage that “the dose makes the poison,” meaning that a substance causes harm only when consumed in high enough doses. But this ignores a growing body of evidence that some synthetic chemicals, even at very low levels, disrupt the body’s neurological, metabolic and reproductive systems.

The dose-is-all mentality also doesn’t allow for particularly sensitive windows of exposure, including pregnancy and fetal development, even though many industrial chemicals can cross the placenta. Nor does it consider the toxic effects of chemical mixtures even though chemicals that are innocuous in isolation prove harmful in combination — and no one’s exposed to just one chemical at a time.

 A recent study identified over 350,000 chemicals and mixtures used in commerce — some three times more than previously assumed. Consumers are likely exposed to multiple doses of the same chemicals through food and other everyday products. BPA, for example, leaches from can coatings and seeps into people’s skin from store receipts. Phthalates, a group of chemicals used to make plastic more flexible, contaminate meats, fats and dairy products and escape from personal care products. Phthalates have been linked to early puberty, lower sperm count and other reproductive problems in lab animals but few studies have evaluated their effects on humans.

Sometimes the effort by scientists to track and analyze these chemicals can feel like a game of whack-a-mole. Several years ago Muncke switched from protecting waterways to food packaging issues and made a shocking discovery: nonylphenol, an endocrine disruptor she and her colleagues worked so hard to eliminate from sewage sludge, was leaching into milk as a breakdown product of an approved substance.

“I just couldn’t believe the very same chemicals we were trying to remove from wastewater effluent were being used to make food packaging — and still are.”  

Muncke says she and her colleagues hope their paper inspires regulators to reconsider their definition of safety. Most people don’t want untested or hazardous chemicals leaching into their food, she says. “But that is not the way safety is defined by the regulations.”

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