Newly identified chemicals leach into food packages, pose regulatory challenge.

Feb 07, 2010

Muncke, J. Endocrine disrupting chemicals and other substances of concern in food contact materials: An updated review of exposure, effect and risk assessment. Journal of Steroid Biochemistry and Molecular Biology http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.jsbmb.2010.10.004.

Synopsis by Emily Barrett

Plastics commonly used to package foods may pose significant health hazards but are a forgotten component of food safety, according to a recently published review article.

It is well-known that eating fresh fruits and vegetables can reduce extra fat, salt and calories; but now there are additional reasons to choose fresh foods over processed ones.

Increasingly, evidence shows that the plastics and wrappers used for packaging can inadvertently leach unwanted chemicals into food. Several recent studies found high levels of bisphenol A – an environmental chemical that can disrupt hormonal processes – in canned foods and in packaged foods for people and pets.

Now, another study suggests that the problems go far beyond just one culprit or one health effect. Among the many toxic chemicals that can migrate from packaging into food are the endocrine disrupting phthalates and organotins and the carcinogen benzophenone. These compounds are heavily used in food packaging and have known health effects, yet are not routinely tested or regulated in food, according to the paper's author Jane Muncke.*

Although some regulations exist to guarantee safe food packaging, the current system does not address concerns posed by endocrine disrupting chemicals, Muncke explains.* The associated health effects of exposure to hormone altering compounds are many and varied, including immune disfunction, metabolic disorders (diabetes, thyroid) and reproductive problems.

A number of other notable regulatory flaws include not testing mixtures and a lack of understanding of different effects on different populations – from children to developing fetus to adults to the elderly, according to Muncke.*

Currently, chemical toxicity tests are only required when compounds reach certain levels in food. In the U.S., it is 0.5 parts per billion (ppb) for general toxicity and 1 ppm for reproductive toxicity.

The guidelines, though, do not consider the collective numbers and toxicity – alone or in combination – of all of the chemicals that can leach from the packaging, the author points out.* In a chemical mix, individual health effects may be magnified. Printing, ink, adhesives, recycled cardboard and the plastic containers can all introduce unwanted chemicals into a single food product, creating a mix with additive or synergystic effects. What’s more, the chemicals may degrade over time or form new compounds that migrate into food. These can go entirely unmeasured since it is nearly impossible to identify and test for them all, suggests .

Kids may be at particular risk. Not only are their bodies still developing and hence susceptible to environmental insults, but they tend to eat more packaged foods, a more limited diet and more food for their body weight than adults do. There are similar concerns for pregnant women and their fetuses, as well as obese adults, whose bodies may process these chemicals differently from their trimmer counterparts.

Muncke suggests* more stringent and broader regulations as well as testing programs may be necessary to further identify and reduce exposures – especially in children and women of reproductive age – to a broad swath of chemicals found in canned, packaged and other processed food.

* Note, 2/10/11: Attributions were added to clarify that the ideas are those of the paper's author.

 

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