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Food Packaging Chemicals May Be Harmful

The synthetic chemicals used in the packaging, storage, and processing of foodstuffs might be harmful to human health over the long term, according to a commentary by environmental scientists the Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health. The authors explain that most of these substances are not inert and can leach into the foods we eat.

A release from the publisher notes that although some of these chemicals are regulated, people who eat packaged or processed foods are likely to be chronically exposed to low levels of these substances throughout their lives. Not only that, but  far too little is known about the long term impact of the substances, including at crucial stages of human development, such as in the womb, which is “surely not justified on scientific grounds,” the authors claim.

They point out that lifelong exposure to food contact materials or FCMs “is a cause for concern for several reasons.”

These include the fact that known toxicants, such as formaldehyde, a cancer causing substance, are legally used in these materials. Formaldehyde is widely present, albeit at low levels, in plastic bottles used for fizzy drinks and melamine tableware.

Second, other chemicals known to disrupt hormone production also crop up in FCMs, including bisphenol A, tributyltin, triclosan, and phthalates.

“Whereas the science for some of these substances is being debated and policy makers struggle to satisfy the needs of stakeholders, consumers remain exposed to these chemicals daily, mostly unknowingly,” the authors point out.

Third, the total number of known chemical substances used intentionally in FCMs exceeds 4000.

Beyond that, potential cellular changes caused by FCMs, in particular those with the capacity to disrupt hormones, are not even being considered in routine toxicology analysis. The authors to suggest that this fact “casts serious doubts on the adequacy of chemical regulatory procedures.”

However, establishing potential cause and effect as a result of lifelong and largely invisible exposure to FCMs will be no easy task, largely because there are no unexposed populations to serve as control groups. Also, there are likely to be wide differences in exposure levels among individuals and across certain population groups.

But some sort of population-based assessment and biomonitoring are urgently needed to tease out any potential links between food contact chemicals and chronic conditions such as cancer, obesity, diabetes, and neurological and inflammatory disorders, particularly given the known role of environmental pollutants.

“Since most foods are packaged, and the entire population is likely to be exposed, it is of utmost importance that gaps in knowledge are reliably and rapidly filled,” they authors wrote.

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