Plastics and food

Are chemicals from plastic food containers and wrapping as safe as the industry and regulators claim or are they slowly poisoning us?
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In brief

• Though the risk is low, there’s growing evidence that food can be contaminated by harmful chemicals from some types of plastic.
• Many foods are packaged in these risky plastics – including fresh meat, gourmet cheese, and even some health foods and organic vegetables.
• There are safer alternatives, and CHOICE wants the industry to phase out these risky plastics.

Moving hazards

Plastic as such isn’t a problem. The polymer molecules from which it’s made are far too big to move from the packaging material into the food. But plastic can also contain much smaller molecules that are free to migrate into the food it’s in contact with. The plastic can slowly breakdown, releasing monomer. Two plastics of particular concern are
Polycarbonate (often used to make food storage containers and bottles, in particular bottles marketed for use by infants and small children) and the epoxy resin used to line cans can release bisphenol A (BPA), a chemical that many experts now believe can cause serious health problems.
PVC (used to make bottles, cling wrap and the seals for screw-cap jars) contains added chemicals known as plasticisers. On its own, PVC is hard and rigid (it’s used to make drains, guttering and downpipes), so plasticisers are added to make it soft and flexible – in much the same way water added to clay makes it soft. Plasticisers can make up as much as 40% of the plastic material. Phthalates and DEHA (di-(2-ethyhexyl)adipate) are often added as plasticisers to the PVC that’s used for food packaging; again, recent research raises doubts about the safety of these compounds.

Video: Plastics health risk

A simple test shows harmful plasticisers in our food wrapping.

Risk assessment

BPA and phthalates are endocrine disruptors, meaning they can mimic the body’s natural hormones and thereby cause a raft of health problems. Infants and the very young are most vulnerable to exposure because of their lower body weight and because their growth and development are strongly influenced by hormones; the effects on health can be lifelong. These effects have been seen clearly and consistently in experiments with animals and when people or wildlife have been accidentally exposed to high levels of endocrine disruptors. The US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has issued a statement calling for more research into the possible harmful effects of BPA, reinforcing growing concerns about its safety.

While these compounds are undoubtedly hazardous at high levels of exposure, scientific opinion is divided over the risk from the much lower levels that we’re exposed to every day in our food. There is, however, growing scientific evidence that even at these lower levels of exposure, phthalates and BPA may be causing problems such as infertility, obesity, breast cancer, prostate cancer, heart disease and diabetes.

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