Pass on plastic
Study shows food packaging's toxic impact
A study published in Environmental Health Perspectives measuring plastic packaging found that exposure to the chemicals bisphenol A, often referred to as BPA, and bis(2-ethylhexyl) phthalate, a.k.a. DEHP, were substantially reduced when participants ate food with limited plastic.
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 Northern California joined an eight-day “food intervention” study, eating their typical diets the first few days, switching to a fresh-food diet and then resuming their usual foods for the final days. The families 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 Sarah Janssen, senior scientist with the Natural Resources Defense Council. “Simple changes in diet can have immediate and dramatic effects.”
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has 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, and 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 said 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 nonalcoholic-beverage containers are up 3 percent, or 16 million containers over the first quarter of 2011.”
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 said she also uses forks and spoons made from corn instead of plastic for outdoor dining.
A statement from the American Chemistry Council said 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 have yet to be tested.