The Washington Post recently published an informative article entitled "If the Food's in Plastic, What's in the Food?"
The author discusses studies showing that plastic food packaging is a major source of the BPA and phthalates (chemicals used to make plastics flexible) which are found in the bodies of most Americans. Other studies show that phthalates pass into food during food processing, some of it from the PVC found in the tubing in food processing equipment, conveyer belts and food prep gloves.
In an earlier post on plastic food packaging, I discussed how the FDA regulates as "indirect food additives" chemicals that migrate from packaging into food. The FDA has approved more that 3,000 of these chemicals for use in food packaging, including known or suspected reproductive toxins and carcinogens, including BPA, formaldehyde, some phthalates, styrene and various forms of PVC. A Swiss researcher quoted in the Post article found that at least 50 compounds with known or suspected endocrine-disrupting activity have been approved as food-contact materials.
The FDA approves these potentially hazardous substances for food packaging on the premise that "the dose makes the poison" and that the amounts of these chemicals that migrate into food are too small to be harmful. However, as the author of the Post article points out, that premise does not take into account the emerging science on endocrine disruptors. The science shows that these chemicals might be harmful at much lower doses than have previously been suspected of causing health problems.
The director of a Pew Charitable Trusts initiative examining FDA regulation of food additives explains that some of the chemicals approved by the FDA were approved back in the 1960's: "Unless someone in the FDA goes back and looks at those decisions in light of the scientific developments in the past 30 years, it’s pretty hard to say what is and isn’t safe in the food supply."
Another criticism of the FDA is that it does not consider the effects of cumulative exposure. We come into contact with an untold number of chemical-leaching products everyday. As a scientist notes in the article, "a variety of chemicals ingested separately in very small doses may act on certain organ systems or tissues as if they were a single cumulative dose." In other words, continued and repeated exposure to even trace amounts of different hazardous chemicals can have adverse health effects.
Finally, the article points out that we as consumers have no way to know what chemicals, and in what amounts, we are ingesting or serving to our families every day. Disturbingly, the FDA gets its migration data and preliminary safety information from packaging manufacturers and protects the information as confidential.
The information in this article reinforces the importance of choosing whole, fresh food (and foregoing packaged, processed food) whenever you can. Farmers' markets will be opening in our area in the next few weeks. I can't wait to take advantage of these sources of fresh, local food.