Living in a ‘chemical soup’

Recent study shows that eating fresh—versus packaged—food reduces exposure to harmful chemicals

Environmental-health news:
Visit, the website of Environmental Health Perspectives, a monthly journal of peer-reviewed research and news published with the support of the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences, National Institutes of Health and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

A study published in Environmental Health Perspectives measuring plastic packaging found that exposure to the chemicals bisphenol A (BPA) and bis(2-ethylhexyl) phthalate (DEHP) were substantially reduced when participants ate food with limited plastic packaging.

Looking at it another way, “The study provides compelling evidence that removing BPA and DEHP from food packaging would substantially reduce exposures for adults and children,” said Ruthann Rudel, the study’s lead author and director of research at the Silent Spring Institute.

Five families from the Bay Area joined an eight-day “food intervention” study, eating their typical diets the first few days, switching to a fresh-food diet and resuming their usual foods for the final days. The families—each consisting of two parents and two children—submitted urine samples for analysis.

The results: When participants ate the fresh-food diet, the average levels of BPA in their urine decreased by more than 60 percent. The average levels of DEHP dropped by more than 50 percent during the fresh-food diet. After families returned to their normal diets, BPA levels increased to pre-intervention levels.

“The study showed that food is the biggest source of exposure for BPA and phthalates,” said Sara Janssen, senior scientist with the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC). “Simple changes in diet can have immediate and dramatic effects.”

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration recently denied a petition by the NRDC asking that BPA be banned from food packaging.

“There’s a lack of transparency when it comes to food packaging,” said Janet Nudelman, director of program and policy at the Breast Cancer Fund. “We can’t find out about the chemicals that may be leaching into the food from the packaging. We need stricter regulation of the kinds of chemicals that manufacturers can use in food packaging.”

BPA and phthalates are endocrine-disrupting chemicals, or chemicals that affect the hormonal system. BPA is found in the epoxy resin lining of food and beverage cans and some polycarbonate plastic products. The chemical is linked to obesity, diabetes, breast and prostate cancer, as well as behavioral and neurological problems.

The phthalate DEHP is a plastic softener sometimes found in food containers. The chemical can disrupt male reproductive development and sperm quality.

Rudel says we can’t assume plastics are safe even if they are free of DEHP.

“Plastics contain a number of endocrine-disrupting chemicals and most ingredients haven’t been tested for long-term health effects, so there isn’t a good basis for assuming they are safe,” she said. The Breast Cancer Fund and the Silent Spring Institute co-sponsored the study published in March 2011.

One obvious alternative to plastic packaging is glass, and when it comes to drinks, many consumers are making the switch. Lynn Bragg, president of the Glass Packaging Institute said, “Shipment and production numbers for non-alcoholic beverage containers are up 3 percent, or 16 million containers, over the first quarter of 2011.”

Along similar lines, EcoFocus Worldwide, a research and consulting group, noted that in a survey of more than 4,000 consumers in 2012, 37 percent said they were extremely or very concerned about the health and safety of plastics used in food and water packaging compared with 33 percent in 2010.

When shopping, look for canned food and plastic containers that are not packaged with BPA, but be aware that these products could contain other additives that are equally toxic or untested.

Avoid microwaving food in plastic, which can cause chemicals to leach into food; trade plastic water bottles for reusable stainless steel or glass; and store leftovers in glass or stainless steel instead of plastic. “There is room for innovation,” said Rudel, who added that she uses forks and spoons made from corn instead of plastic for outdoor dining.

A statement from the American Chemistry Council (ACC) says exposure to DEHP is “minute.” “This study simply confirms these reassuring points that consumers have minute exposures to DEHP from food sources, and that the substances do not stay in the body, but are quickly eliminated though natural means,” said Steve Risotto, senior director of the ACC.

Data from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and Health Canada confirm that typical consumer exposure to DEHP, from all sources, is up to 1,000 times lower than government-established safe exposure levels.

But, as the study revealed, chemicals known to cause harm are finding their way into our bodies via our food supply—and plenty of chemicals (including BPA alternatives) have yet to be tested.

As Linda Birnbaum, director of the National Institute of Environmental Health Science, who is overseeing a $30 million research program studying BPA, put it, “The way we tend to evaluate chemicals is one at a time, and in reality we live in a chemical soup.”

E/The Environmental Magazine