The Health Threat of Plastic Contamination in Food

Approximately 450 million tons of plastic are produced annually, and it is estimated that production will reach 1.2 billion tons by 2060. Plastic has become ubiquitous in daily life, ranking as the third most widely produced material globally, following steel and cement.

Numerous studies have highlighted, in addition to well-known environmental consequences, that the safety levels for humans, as established by U.S. and European authorities, do not align with recent research. The risk is significant, especially considering the complexity resulting from the migration of chemical substances—from production to transformation, packaging to transportation.

What repercussions do food-grade plastics have on our bodies? According to Consumer Reports, they lurk in everyday foods. In what quantities? And with what consequences?

Consumer Reports

Consumer Reports, an independent nonprofit organization founded in 1936, dedicated to impartial product research.

The Study by Consumer Reports

The research focused on the quantity of bisphenols and phthalates in food. Two or three samples of 85 packaged foods were analyzed, including 67 from supermarkets and 18 from fast-food outlets. They encompass various food categories such as baked goods, beverages, condiments, fruits and vegetables, baby food, meat and fish, milk and other dairy products, vegetable oils, and typical fast-food items, packaged in bags, aluminum foil, trays, cellophane, and more.

Out of 85 products, a staggering 84 were found to be contaminated.

While bisphenols were detected in 79% of the analyzed samples, the levels were significantly lower than in the last analysis conducted in 2009. Phthalates were present in all foods except one—the Polar raspberry and lime seltzer—with much higher levels than bisphenols. Although they did not exceed the limits set by U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and European Food Safety Authority (EFSA).

These are widely consumed foods, recognized brands worldwide, such as Del Monte, Lipton, Coca Cola, Pepsi, Gatorade, Yoplait, and even fast-food chains like Burger King and McDonald’s.

In response, some brands—Del Monte, Gerber, and McDonald’s—stated adherence to existing regulations.

However, according to the scientist supervising the tests, Tunde Akinleye, “many of these thresholds do not reflect current scientific knowledge and may not protect against all potential health effects.” Ami Zota, an associate professor of Environmental Health Sciences at Columbia University Mailman School of Public Health in New York, who has studied phthalate risks, reinforces this by stating that the decision to allow the use of these chemicals in food is “not validated by scientific studies.”

Determining an acceptable level for these chemicals in food is challenging due to exposure from various stages of the food chain—from production to processing, packaging to transportation, and other sources like thermal receipts, dust, and water. Therefore, quantifying a “safe” limit for each individual food item is challenging. “The more we learn about these chemicals, including their ubiquity, the clearer it becomes that they can harm us even at very low levels,” says Akinleye.


What are Bisphenols and Phthalates?

Phthalates and bisphenols are a class of organic chemical compounds derived from petroleum, serving as additives. Additives are an essential part of plastics and are present in all types of plastics used for commercial purposes. Up to 20 different categories of substances are added to the polymer, or plastic, each serving a specific function, such as coloring, antioxidation, UV absorption, plasticizing action, and more.

How are they used?

Phthalates are used as plasticizers to provide flexibility and elasticity to the polymer, in most cases, PVC.

Bisphenols, for their transparency, thermal and mechanical resistance, are used in the production of rigid plastics and resins, such as polycarbonate, also used for food containers like bottles, tableware, and various containers.

Their applications span various sectors, from automotive and construction to fashion and furniture, medical product manufacturing, toy industry, and the food industry. This means that phthalates are everywhere, and exposure to these chemicals is continuous, making it inadequate and misleading to establish limits for a single product.

What are the health risks?

Numerous scientific studies have demonstrated the danger of exposure to phthalates and bisphenols, linking them to serious conditions such as cancer, diabetes, high blood pressure, fertility issues, early menopause, asthma, and risks to the endocrine system.

Phthalates act as endocrine disruptors, mimicking the action of estrogen, causing imbalances in the hormonal system, with repercussions on an organism, its descendants, or a subgroup of the population.

The Endocrine Society was the first scientific organization to publicly take a stance on this issue, asserting that as early as 2009, there was sufficient evidence to conclude that Endocrine-Disrupting Chemicals (bisphenol, phthalates, and a wide range of other plastic additives) posed a risk to public health. In a study conducted in 2015, it confirmed previous studies and demonstrated, with additional evidence, the correlation between EDCs and cancer, early puberty in girls, obesity, diabetes, infertility, and neurological developmental disorders.It emphasized the risks even with very low exposure to EDCs and the particular vulnerability of fetuses and newborns.

How to Act in Daily Life

Prefer other materials such as glass, steel, ceramics. If using plastic, be careful not to expose it to heat sources, avoid washing it with overly aggressive detergents, as wear facilitates the migration of additives into food. It is also advisable to avoid contact with foods containing fats and oils.

Consumer Reports

Consumer Reports

The Health Threat of Plastic Contamination in Food

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