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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01 .Introduction


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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BPA gets into our food via polycarbonate food containers and drink bottles, especially after repeated exposure to heat and detergent in a dishwasher.

The epoxy resins used to line cans are another significant source. Our US sister organisation, the Consumers Union, recently tested 19 leading brands of canned food and found BPA in almost all of them. One of Australia’s leading manufacturers of canned foods, SPC Ardmona, told CHOICE that an industry survey in 2002 found no BPA in their products. But this report was a study commissioned by the canned food industry that was not publicly released.

BPA is rapidly eliminated from the body, but because of continuous exposure most of us have detectable levels of BPA in our body tissue. Typical levels, however, are well below the daily upper limit of safe exposure set by the US Food and Drug Administration and European Food Safety Authority . A number of independent scientists recently expressed concern that this limit is based on experiments done in the 1980s, rather than on the hundreds of more recent animal and laboratory studies suggesting we could be at risk from much lower doses.

In 2006, an international panel of 38 experts concluded that “the wide range of adverse effects of low doses of BPA in laboratory animals … is a great cause for concern with regard to the potential for similar adverse effects in humans”. A major US study has since identified a direct link between exposure to low levels of BPA and increased risk of diabetes and heart disease.

Not surprisingly, the plastics industry strenuously refutes these findings and continues to assert that BPA is harmless at the low levels to which we’re regularly exposed in our food. But while the evidence is far from conclusive, there’s now far too much of it to be ignored. The underlying science is sound and the potential for such effects is real. Most experts agree that more research is needed, and in the US, $14 million has been committed to research over the next two years on the health effects of low-level exposure to BPA. Meanwhile, the Canadian government is taking steps to prohibit importation and sale of polcarbonate baby bottles.

Phthalates are now used in so many products they are almost impossible to avoid. A Swiss study recently found people who eat healthily and try to avoid chemical additives in their food are exposed to much the same levels of phthalates as those who eat junk food and don’t worry about their diet at all. Experiments with animals have consistently shown that some phthalates can be endocrine disruptors but, as with BPA, the evidence for adverse health effects from low-level exposure to phthalates is more limited. Again, though, there’s too much of it to be ignored.

Because of its low cost, DEHP is the phthalate most often used as a plasticiser for PVC. Experts now generally agree that low level exposure to DEHP can affect reproductive development, particularly in young boys, and a US study has found a link between exposure to phthalates and increased risk of diabetes and obesity in men.

We tested 25 food products in glass jars with screw caps sealed with a PVC gasket (CHOICE, August 2008). Twelve contained phthalates at levels above the limit set by the EU, and one, a tandoori dip imported from India, contained DEHP at 230 times the EU limit.

The plastics not so fantastic

Same plastics are safer than others. Use our table below to see which ones are best avoided.


The plastics industry has been fighting off tighter regulation. It’s a huge industry with vast resources (worldwide, it produces about 0.4 million tonnes per year of phthalates and more than two million tonnes of BPA ) and independent scientists have complained about an aggressive disinformation campaign. Certainly, industry websites blatantly highlight studies that support their point of view and ignore those that don’t. Our regulators could do more to protect consumers; a lack of evidence of harm is not evidence of safety.


The use of plastics for wrapping or packaging foods is governed by the Food Standards Code, which sets a limit for the level permitted in food of highly toxic vinyl chloride monomer (10 parts per billion) yet no specific limits for BPA, DEHA or phthalates. Food Standards Australia New Zealand (FSANZ), our food regulator, maintains that BPA and phthalates pose no significant health risks at the low levels found in food. These compounds come under a vague clause in the Code that prohibits materials “likely to cause bodily harm, distress or discomfort”. FSANZ told CHOICE it plans to review the approach to regulating food packaging materials, but for now assesses the risk from individual chemicals on a case-by-case basis.

The National Industrial Chemicals Notification and Assessment Scheme (NICNAS) told CHOICE that they are aware of concerns about phthalates and are conducting a thorough investigation, focusing on the use of specific phthalates (including DEHP) in childcare articles, toys, and cosmetics.

In 2008 the Productivity Commission recommended that the Australian government establish a more systematic research program to identify and deal with the risks of chemicals in consumer articles, but to date there’s been no action.


DEHP has been classified as a probable human carcinogen and was recently banned from toys and childcare products, along with two other phthalates. But for BPA, the Food and Drug Administration continues to set the daily upper limit of safe exposure at 50 micrograms per kilogram of body weight – well above levels that, according to hundreds of recent studies, could be causing serious health risks.

European Union

The EU recently banned the use of DEHP in all toys and articles used for childcare. Two other phthalates often used as plasticisers, DNOP and DINP, have also been banned for use in toys and childcare articles that small children might put in their mouths, such as teething rings and dummies. The EU has also specifically set very low limits for phthalates in food – 1.5 parts per million (ppm) for DEHP and 9 ppm for DIOP and DINP. But in 2006, the European Food Safety Authority reported that low-dose effects of BPA had not been demonstrated in a robust and reproducible way, and in particular found no consistent evidence that BPA causes cancer. The UK regulator, the Food Standards Agency, continues to assure consumers that BPA is safe at current levels of exposure.


Health Canada’s Food Directorate has concluded that “the current dietary exposure to BPA through food packaging uses is not expected to pose a health risk to the general population, including newborns and infants”.

But the Canadian government has taken some action. It’s moving forward with proposed regulations to prohibit sale and importation of polycarbonate plastic baby bottles “due to the uncertainty raised in some studies relating to the potential effects of low levels of BPA”.

Most food and drink is packaged in containers made from plastics that seem to be harmless (see table). Soft drinks and bottled water are usually in PET bottles, for example, while yoghurt and margarine containers are usually made from polypropylene. There’s clearly no real need for food manufacturers to use packaging or wrapping made from polycarbonate or PVC, but there are still far too many products in the supermarkets where the food is in contact with these potentially harmful plastics (see Some Products to Avoid). But there are steps you can take to reduce your exposure to them.

  • You can often identify the type of plastic from its identification code – unfortunately, this code is voluntary and you won’t find it on all plastic packaging. Look for the codes 1 (PET), 2 (HDPE), 4 (LDPE), 5 (PP) and 6 (PS). Whenever possible avoid foods or beverages that have been in contact with plastics with the symbol 3 (PVC) or 7 (a catch-all category that includes polycarbonate).
  • Avoid fresh meat, fruit or vegetables wrapped in cling wrap. Most cling wrap sold for domestic use is now made from low density polyethylene (4), which seems to be safe. But supermarkets and many independent butchers and greengrocers are still wrapping meat and fresh vegetables in cling wrap made from PVC.
  • Avoid reusable plastic bottles with the symbol 7 (or look for product labels that say “BPA-free”). Keep in mind that heating and washing polycarbonate bottles can increase the amount of BPA that leaches out.
  • Consider cutting down on canned foods, as can linings can leach BPA directly into food.
  • While some plastics such as polypropylene (often used for take-away containers) seem to be OK, as a general rule it’s probably safer to avoid using any plastic containers when cooking or reheating food in a microwave oven. Use glass containers for high-fat foods, as toxic chemicals are more likely to migrate into fatty foods at high temperatures. Some of the microwaveable ready meals CHOICE tested (see Time-critical food) were in polycarbonate containers – definitely not a good choice.
Trawling the supermarkets, CHOICE found far too many foods packed in risky plastics, even some health foods and organic vegetables – here are just a couple.

Fresh meat, fruit and vegetables wrapped in cling wrap


 The cling film you buy to use at home is made from low-density polyethylene, but we found meat and fresh vegetables from supermarkets wrapped in PVC film; phthalates can leach into the food.



Reusable polycarbonate bottles

The more you wash them, the more BPA they release into your drink.

There’s now enough sound scientific evidence to raise genuine concerns that BPA and some plasticisers can cause health problems, even at the very low levels to which we’re currently exposed. The level of risk is uncertain until more research is done, but why take unnecessary risks, especially with young children for whom exposure to these chemicals could mean increased risk of diabetes, heart disease and cancer later in life? The food industry does not need to use these plastics, as there are safer alternatives.

CHOICE wants

  • Manufacturers to phase out PVC and polycarbonate in baby products and food packaging, and phase out BPA-based plastic lining for food and drink cans.
  • The federal government to implement the Productivity Commission’s recommendation to establish a more systematic research program on the risks from chemicals in consumer articles.

What you can do

Help our fight for safer food packaging. Send any plastic packaging you can’t identify or have concerns about to:

Plastic Packaging, CHOICE, 57 Carrington Road, Marrickville 2204

We’ll take it all to Nicola Roxon, Minister for Health and Ageing, with a request for action on harmful chemicals.

Follow our campaign at Bad chemistry campaign site.

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