On a scale of 1 to 10, how worried are you about harmful chemicals lurking in your food? Truth be told, you’re probably more concerned about the rising costs of gas and groceries, what your child is or isn’t learning in school (or if they’re even safe at school), whether you should get a better job, how your aging parents are doing . . . you know, life!
Thankfully, advocacy groups are out there fighting for our safety, including food safety. But even they can’t fix all the problems in the food industry despite Herculean efforts. This was clearly demonstrated earlier this month when the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) denied two petitions filed by several allied advocacy groups, including the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF), Center for Environmental Health (CEH), Center for Food Safety (CFS), and Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI), more than six years ago.
The petitions implored the only government body with the authority to do so to ban the use of over 20 ortho-phthalates from being used in food packaging and other food contact materials (think plastic wrap, paper, cardboard, straws, yogurt containers, plastic bags, cereal boxes, and more) because they have been linked to all sorts of dire health issues.
What Are Ortho-Phthalates?
“CSPI disagrees with FDA’s decisions. The petitions presented sufficient evidence based on what was known in 2016, and the evidence supporting a ban has grown substantially in the years since we submitted the petitions,” Thomas M. Galligan, PhD, CSPI’s principal scientist for food additives and supplements with expertise in endocrine disruption, said in an interview. “Meanwhile, FDA has spent that time doing nothing to protect the public from exposure to phthalates in our food.”
So, maybe we should be worried about harmful chemicals in our food?
Ortho-phthalates (hereafter referred to as phthalates, pronounced THAL-ates) are man-made chemicals used in plastics, solvents, and personal care products. They make plastic products flexible, fragrances in beauty products last longer, and solvents like adhesives dry faster.
Why Phthalates are Considered Harmful
Phthalates have been around for more than 50 years and have been used in everything from children’s toys to food packaging to shampoos and medical products like intravenous (IV) tubing, blood bags, and catheters. Phthalates have even been used in foods like Mac-n-Cheese. Some have called phthalates the “everywhere chemical” because they are literally everywhere.
Because phthalates are loosely bonded to their host material, heat, agitation, and/or length of contact time can all make these chemicals leach into our food. Heat mixed with foods high in fat or alcohol content makes the chemicals leach even more. That includes putting hot leftovers in a plastic container or heating up food in the microwave. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), phthalates can enter our bodies from eating foods or drinking beverages contaminated with them and through our nose and mouth (if they’re in the air).
What About Those Petitions?
Phthalates don’t collect in the body, but they do break down into metabolites before exiting through urine and feces. Most people today have phthalates in their urine, according to a recent study conducted by the CDC. The study revealed that testing between 2017 and 2018 detected a breakdown product of DEHP, a particularly harmful phthalate, in over 99% of people sampled. (Side note: DEHP was banned for use in children’s toys in 2008, but it is still allowed in food contact products.)
A growing body of research is revealing that phthalates are toxic and harmful. Considered endocrine disruptors, phthalates have been linked to birth defects, problems with fertility and child development, an increased risk for breast, genital, prostate, ovarian, and breast disease, and even death.
“DEHP . . . can interfere with male sex hormones, like testosterone, which are especially important for male reproduction and development, among other processes in the body,” said Galligan. “The U.S. National Toxicology Program (NTP) determined in 2006 that DEHP can probably harm human reproduction and development based on clear evidence in animal testing. NTP also suspects DEHP causes cancer in people, specifically they classify it as ‘reasonably anticipated to be a human carcinogen.'”
Most recently, a review of reviews published in the journal Environment International stated that researchers “found robust evidence for an association with lower semen quality, neurodevelopment and risk of childhood asthma.” They also identified “moderate evidence for an association between phthalates/metabolites and low birthweight, endometriosis, decreased testosterone, ADHD, Type 2 diabetes and breast/uterine cancer.”
Dr. Ulrike Luderer, a reproductive toxicologist who specializes in developmental toxicology, ovarian function, and reproductive biology and is a professor of environmental and occupational health at the University of California, stated in an interview that multiple studies on animals exposed to phthalates demonstrated alarming changes to the physiology of reproductive organs in males.
The CDC has stated that animal studies aren’t indicative of what can happen to humans when it comes to phthalates. Luderer, however, strongly disagrees. She said animal studies in this area are crucial and very telling.