Introduction

Various chemicals used in food storage and handling materials can leach into foods and be ingested. In recent years there has been particular focus on bisphenol-A, found in plastic bottles (such as water bottles and baby bottles) and food can liners; phthalates, found in materials made of flexible vinyl plastic (PVC or polyvinyl chloride plastic); and perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFASs, also known as PFCs), applied to some paper food wrappers and boxes to impart stain-resistance.

Bisphenol-A (BPA)

Description: Bisphenol-A is the building block of polycarbonate plastic, a rigid and usually clear plastic that has been used to make water bottles (such as personal bottles and large blue bottles for water coolers) and baby bottles. Polycarbonate may also be used in industrial storage vats for food. BPA is also used in epoxy resin that lines the insides of food and beverage cans to reduce corrosion, and may be used in coatings and varnishes on the caps and closures of food jars and bottles. Aside from food packaging, it is also used in various products including some types of thermal paper, dental sealants and composites, various shatterproof plastic products, and medical products. BPA is produced in large volumes: global production exceeds 6 billion pounds (2.7 billion kg) per year, with about one-third produced in the US.

Exposure: The 2003-2004 National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES), conducted by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), found detectable levels of BPA in 93% of Americans six years and older. BPA has been found to cross the placental barrier in mammals including mice and rats. The primary route of exposure for humans is the ingestion of foods and beverages that have been stored in materials containing BPA. Dermal and skin exposures are also possible.

Health Effects: BPA is a known endocrine disruptor, but the extent of possible harm to human health is controversial. The US National Toxicology Program Center for the Evaluation of Risks to Human Reproduction (CERHR) conducted an evaluation in 2008 and concluded that there is "some concern" for BPA’s developmental toxicity for fetuses, infants, and children, with effects on the brain, behavior, and prostate gland. EPA states that BPA is a reproductive, developmental, and systemic toxicant in animal studies, and weakly estrogenic, and in 2015 California listed BPA as a female reproductive toxicant under Proposition 65. Animal studies also suggest links to various health problems including obesity, changes in thyroid function, increased susceptibility to breast cancer, earlier onset of puberty, miscarriages, changes in fertility, diabetes, heart disease, and asthma.

FDA, however, states that "BPA is safe at the current levels occurring in foods," and the European Food Safety Authority also states that "BPA poses no health risk to consumers of any age group (including unborn children, infants and adolescents) at current exposure levels." However, EFSA is currently conducting an evaluation of possible immune effects and is set to conduct an overall re-evaluation of BPA in 2017-18. Health Canada takes a somewhat different position: "Due to the uncertainty raised in some animal studies relating to the potential effects of low levels of BPA, the Government of Canada is taking action to enhance the protection of infants and young children."

Regulation: BPA-containing baby bottles, sippy cups, and cans of infant formula have been banned in the US, Canada, and European Union. (FDA states that the decisions in 2012 and 2013 to no longer authorize such uses were due to market abandonment and not safety concerns.) Turkey banned BPA-containing bottles and sippy cups in 2011. In the US, individual states have also banned BPA in these products, including Washington, Minnesota, Louisiana, Massachusetts, New Jersey, New York, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, and Rhode Island. Japanese industry has voluntarily phased out the use of BPA in food can liners, and leaching standards are in place for baby bottles and other polycarbonate containers. In Europe, under Plastics Regulation EC 10/2011, a migration standard for BPA has been in force for plastic food contact articles since January 2013. In March 2016 a draft amendment was proposed to lower the migration limit and to expand restricted products to include "varnished or coated materials and articles intended to come into contact with food."

Reducing Exposure: For polycarbonate bottles and other containers, alternative plastics or alternative materials such as glass or stainless steel can be chosen. For plastic containers that are marked with resin codes (sometimes called recycling codes), polycarbonate falls into the #7 category. Below the number it may be coded as PC, but if coded OTHER, it may not be polycarbonate. Concern has been raised that some BPA-free bottles are made of chemicals similar to BPA, such as BPS (bisphenol-S), so in cases where it is difficult to avoid plastic, polyethylene (LDPE, HDPE, PET/PETE) or polypropylene (PP) are preferable. For canned food, given the limited information available on BPA-free liners and their safety, it is best to choose products packed in cartons or glass as much as possible, though some lids for glass jars and bottles may contain BPA (however they probably leach less BPA than can liners due to reduced food contact). Rinsing canned foods before consumption may help to remove some of the BPA, and ultimately, fresh, frozen, and dry foods are least likely to contain BPA. For beverages, cartons and plastic bottles are least likely to contain BPA.

Quick Resources: NIEHS/NTP Fact Sheet, Britannica, EPA Action Plan, Environmental Working Group study on BPA in specific food brands, Massachusetts Department of Public Health: How to Protect Your Baby from BPA, Safer Chemicals, Healthy Families: Bisphenol-A (additional references below)

 

Perfluoroalkyl or Polyfluoroalkyl Substances (PFASs)

Description: Also known as perfluorinated or polyfluorinated compounds (PFCs), perfluoroalkyl or polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFASs) are a group of environmentally persistent chemicals that are resistant to water, grease, and oil. As such, they have been used in a wide variety of consumer products to add water-, oil-, and stain-resistance. There are two broad groups of PFASs: long-chain and short-chain, depending on the number of core carbon atoms. Industry has been phasing out the use of some long-chain PFASs over the past fifteen or so years due to concerns about persistence, biomagnification, and toxicity; the shorter-chain PFASs are less likely to bioaccumulate but are also persistent and their toxicity is either unknown and/or disputed (Helsingør Statement). Some individual long-chain PFAS compounds are PTFE (polytetrafluoroethylene, or Teflon), PFOA (perfluorooctanoic acid, previously used in the production of Gore-Tex and Teflon), and PFOS (perfluorooctanesulfonate, previously used in Scotchguard). Specific short-chain PFC compounds include PFBS (perfluorobutane sulfonic acid) and PFBA (perfluorobutanoic acid). PFASs also have numerous industrial applications, such as in aerospace and computer wiring, lubricants, metal plating, tape, fire-fighting foams, and in the semiconductor industry. For food packaging, PFASs are used in some fast food wrappers, paper plates, paper boxes (such as for pizza or frozen items), and microwave popcorn bags (pictured below). A helpful overview of study data on PFASs, including presence in consumer products and food, is available from Biomonitoring California.

Exposure: There is widespread wildlife and human exposure to several PFASs, including PFOA (perfluorooctanoic acid) and PFOS (perfluorooctane sulfonate). PFOA, PFOS, PFNA, and PFHxS were detected in 95–100% of samples of people’s blood in 1999–2000 and 2003–2004 (National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES). PFASs are not stored in body fat (they bind to protein albumin in blood and the liver), but the half-life of some of the compounds is up to several years and the compounds biomagnify, or move up the food chain. PFASs have been found in both air and dust; surface water and groundwater; and soil and sediment. The highest levels are typically found near facilities that manufactured or utilized them, but they have also been found at remote locations such as the Arctic and the open ocean. People may be exposed to PFASs through air, indoor dust, food, water, and various consumer products; food is expected to be the primary source of exposure to PFASs such as PFOA and PFOS for most people (ATSDR). The greatest source of exposure to PFOA and PFOS for toddlers and children is hand-to-mouth activities from treated carpets (ATSDR). Some communities near facilities where PFOA and PFOS were previously manufactured, or near facilities such as military bases that used firefighting foams containing these chemicals, have been exposed to high levels of these substances in drinking water (Morrison).

Health Effects: In animal studies, some PFASs disrupt normal endocrine activity; reduce immune function; cause adverse effects on multiple organs, including the liver and pancreas; and cause developmental problems in rodent offspring exposed in the womb (NIEHS). The International Agency for Research on Cancer has classified PFOA as "possibly carcinogenic to humans (class 2B)," most recently in the 2016 Monographs on the Evaluation of Carcinogenic Risks to Humans (volume 110). Studies have also linked higher maternal exposure to PFASs to lower birth weight (Bach et al). In November 2014 a group of scientists published the Helsingør Statement on poly- and perfluorinated alkyl substances (PFASs), a discussion paper raising concerns about the transition from long-chain to short-chain PFASs. In May 2015, over 200 scientists from 38 countries signed a consensus statement urging restrictions in the production and use of PFASs. The Madrid Statement on Poly- and Perfluoroalkyl Substances (PFASs) was published in the journal Environmental Health Perspectives and makes specific recommendations to scientists, governments, manufacturers, purchasers, retailers, and the general public.

Regulation: In May 2016 EPA recommended provisional drinking water health advisories of 0.4 µg/L for PFOA and 0.2 µg/L for PFOS. EPA also requires manufacturers to provide notification prior to producing or importing certain PFASs (details on various rules are available here.) In January 2016 FDA announced a decision to remove the approval of three long-chain PFASs as food additives “because new data are available as to the toxicity of substances structurally similar to these compounds that demonstrate there is no longer a reasonable certainty of no harm from the food-contact use of these FCSs (food contact substances).” Perfluorocarbon resins approved for use by FDA as food contact materials are subject to extraction limits. In Europe, under Plastics Regulation EC 10/2011, the use of 14 PFASs in plastic food contact materials is restricted, but most non-plastic materials (e.g. coated paper) are not regulated (FPF). PFOS, its salts, and perfluorooctane sulfonyl fluoride (PFOSF) were added to Annex B of the Stockholm Convention on Persistent Organic Pollutants in May 2009. Annex B is a list of chemicals targeted for restriction, with certain uses permitted.

Reducing Exposure: In communities where drinking water is contaminated with PFOS or PFOA, activated carbon filters can be used to remove the chemicals (ATSDR). Reducing consumption of foods packaged in stainproof paper wrappers or boxes, especially microwave popcorn, may reduce exposure. Nonstick cookware should not be heated to temperatures over 500 degrees (EWG). (While PFOA is no longer used in the US in the production of Teflon, the Teflon/PTFE coating may still release harmful gases at this temperature, including other PFASs.) Avoiding other consumer products that contain PFAS coatings such as Gore-Tex and Scotchguard may also help to reduce exposure; in families with toddlers and children, avoiding stain-resistance treatments on carpets is recommended.

Quick Resources: ATSDR Public Health Statement on Perfluoroalkyls and Toxicological Profile for Perfluoroalkyls, NIEHS Perfluorinated Chemicals Fact Sheet, EPA: Per- and Polyfluoroalkyl Substances (PFASs) under TSCA, Environmental Working Group: Where Consumers Encounter PFCs Today, Helsingør Statement on poly- and perfluorinated alkyl substances (PFASs), Madrid Statement on Poly- and Perfluoroalkyl Substances (PFASs) (additional references below)

Phthalates

Description: Phthalates are a group of chemicals commonly used as plasticizers to make hard plastic, usually PVC or vinyl, flexible. Hence they may be found in a wide range of consumer products made of soft vinyl, such as shower curtains, toys, flooring, and clothing and apparel. Phthalates are also used in personal care products, perfumes, and other scented products as fragrance carriers, and they are also found in industrial products such as wood finishes, detergents, adhesives, plastic plumbing pipes, lubricants, medical tubing and fluid bags, solvents, and insecticides (NIH). Specific phthalate compounds include DEHP (di(2-ethylhexyl) phthalate), DBP (di-n-butyl phthalate), BBP (butylbenzyl phthalate), DiBP (diisobutyl phthalate), DiDP (diisodecyl phthalate), DiNP (diisononyl phthalate), and DnOP (di(n-octyl) phthalate). Global annual production of phthalates is estimated to be about 11 billion pounds (5 billion kg).

Various studies have determined that phthalates are present in a wide variety of common foods due to transfer from vinyl food processing materials (such as conveyor belts, gloves, and tubing) and packaging. Higher levels of phthalates have been found in poultry, some dairy products (cream) and fats; for the higher-fat foods it is hypothesized that this is due to phthalates leaching more easily into fatty or lipophilic foods (Serrano et al). Also, an April 2016 study found an association between consumption of fast foods and increased levels of the metabolites of two phthalates (DEHP and DiNP) in urine, which suggests that highly processed foods contain higher levels of phthalates and contribute significantly to people's exposure (Zota et al). The use of vinyl plastic in consumer cling wraps and food storage containers is rare; however, some industrial-grade cling wraps are made of vinyl and leach phthalates into foods, particularly cheese (Cao XL et al). Additional studies in Europe have also detected phthalates in other food packaging such as gaskets used in metal lids, coated aluminum foils, and lined cartons and bags (FPF). Further research is needed to determine the presence of phthalates in various foods and food contact materials and the factors that determine the levels of phthalates in foods.

Exposure: People are exposed to phthalates on a regular basis through food and beverages, and to a lesser extent from breathing in air that contains phthalate vapors or dust contaminated with phthalate particles. Skin and inhalation exposure to phthalates may occur through use of products containing them, such as cosmetics, personal care products, cleaning products, or other plastic and vinyl products (NIH, TEDX). Young children's exposure through dust may be greater than adults' due to their hand-to-mouth behaviors (NBP). Phthalate metabolites (which are also phthalate compounds) are routinely detected in urine; phthalates and phthalate metabolites have also been detected in breast milk. Studies have found that phthalates are common contaminants of house dust and indoor air. Women are exposed to higher levels of phthalates than men, and people undergoing medical treatment may be exposed to very high levels due to leaching of phthalates from various types of vinyl plastic bags and tubing. FDA has set guidelines to help health professionals reduce male neonates' exposure to phthalates.

Health Effects: DEHP (di(2-ethylhexyl) phthalate) is listed as "reasonably anticipated to be a human carcinogen" in the Thirteenth Report on Carcinogens published in 2014 by the National Toxicology Program; the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) listed DEHP as "possibly carcinogenic to humans (group 2B)" in the 2013 Monographs on the Evaluation of Carcinogenic Risks to Humans (volume 101). NTP also concluded that high levels of DBP (di-n-butyl phthalate) may adversely affect human reproduction or development. BBP, DBP, DEHP, DiDP, and DnHP are listed by California's Proposition 65 as reproductive and developmental toxicants, and DEHP is also listed as a carcinogen. Many phthalates are endocrine disruptors that interfere with the production of testosterone, which is necessary for proper development and function of male reproductive organs, and exposure during critical windows of development can cause irreversible adverse effects. Animal studies link phthalate exposure with decreased sperm count, undescended testes, and malformations of the penis and urethra; human studies link exposure to altered development of genitals and low sperm count and quality. Phthalates have also been linked with obesity, reduced female fertility, preterm birth and low birthweight, allergies and asthma, and lowered IQ and changes in behavior in children born to mothers exposed to high levels of certain phthalates. 

Regulation: In the US, 30 phthalate compounds are currently approved by FDA for use in food contact applications; in April 2016, FDA agreed to review their safety in response to a petition and has 180 days to make a determination. The use of three phthalates (BBP, DBP, DEHP) in pacifiers, soft rattles, and teethers has been banned in the US since 2008. In July 2008 the European Commission restricted the use of phthalates in food contact materials and set leaching standards, though studies suggest that some products are out of compliance (FPF). In 1999 the European Commission banned the use of six phthalates (DINP, DEHP, DBP, DiDP, DnOP, BBP) in children's toys; in 2005 the ban was made permanent by EU Directive 2005/84/EC and expanded the restriction to include all childcare articles. Fourteen other countries have also banned these phthalates in children's toys (SCHF). The European Chemicals Agency has also recommended that nine phthalate compounds be added to the list of "substances of high concern" under EU REACH legislation due to their reproductive toxicity.

Reducing Exposure: Reducing consumption of fast foods, as well as cheese packaged in cling wrap, may help to reduce ingestion of phthalates. For plastic packaging and other materials stamped with resin/recycling codes, avoid those marked #3 (sometimes with an additional "V" or "PVC"). Choosing household products free of phthalates may reduce exposure to phthalates via skin, inhalation, and hand-to-mouth contact. Phthalate- and PVC-free alternatives are available for many household items such as flooring, shower curtains, toys, and apparel. Retailers including Wal-Mart and Target have taken steps to remove phthalate-containing products from store shelves, and Home Depot and Lowe's have committed to stop selling vinyl flooring products containing phthalates. For cleaning products, personal care products, and other products that may be scented, products listing "fragrance" in the ingredients can be avoided. While not all fragrance mixtures contain phthalates, many do; however, products marketed as "fragrance free" may still contain masking fragrances, so ingredient labels should be examined carefully. HealthyStuff.org offers a searchable database of specific products, including many toys, that have been tested for PVC and other toxic ingredients. A dated but comprehensive overview of PVC in household products is available in the fact sheet Vinyl Exam by Washington Toxics Coalition, and the Center for Health, Environment, and Justice offers information on PVC-free school and office supplies. For medical procedures involving vinyl bags and tubes, patients and health care professionals can reference information on PVC- and phthalate-free equipment from Health Care Without Harm.

Quick Resources: Ecology Center: Phthalates, Food Packaging Forum: Phthalates, NIH Tox Town: Phthalates, Safer Chemicals, Healthy Families: Phthalates (additional references below)

 

Additional Resources and References

Bisphenol-A

California Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment: Bisphenol-A Listed as Known to the State of California to Cause Reproductive Toxicity. May 11, 2015. (accessed August 5, 2016)

European Commission Initiative Roadmap: Proposal for a new measure on bisphenol A (BPA) in food contact materials. November 2015. (accessed August 5, 2016)

Food Packaging Forum: Bisphenol S. March 2014. (accessed August 5, 2016)

Food Safety Watch: Bisphenol A. January 2013. (accessed August 5, 2016)

Japanese Ministry of Health, Labor, and Welfare: Q and A on Bisphenol-A (in Japanese). Updated January 2010. (accessed August 5, 2016)

Zota AR, Phillips CA, Mitro SD. Recent Fast Food Consumption and Bisphenol A and Phthalates Exposures among the U.S. Population in NHANES, 2003-2010. Environ Health Perspect. 2016 Apr 13.


PFASs

Bach, C. C.; Bech, B. H.; Brix, N.; Nohr, E. A.; Bonde, J. P. E.; Henriksen, T. B., Perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl substances and human fetal growth: A systematic review. Critical Reviews in Toxicology. 2015 Jan; 45(1):53-67.

Biomonitoring California: Potential Designated Chemicals: Perfluoroalkyl and Polyfluoroalkyl Substances (PFASs). March 13, 2015 Meeting of the Scientific Guidance Panel (accessed August 4, 2016)

Danish Ministry of the Environment. Short-Chain Polyfluoroalkyl Substances: A literature review of information on human health effects and environmental fate and effect aspects of short -chain PFAS, Environmental project No. 1707, 2015 (accessed August 4, 2016)

Food Packaging Forum: Per- and Polyfluoroalkyl Substances. July 2016. (accessed August 6, 2016)

International Agency for Research on Cancer: 2016 Monographs on the Evaluation of Carcinogenic Risks to Humans (volume 110): PFOA. (accessed August 5, 2016)

Morrison, Jessica. Perfluorinated Chemicals Taint Drinking Water. Chemical and Engineering News. Volume 94 Issue 20 | pp. 20-22; Issue Date: May 16, 2016 | Web Date: May 11, 2016

US Code of Federal Regulations. Title 21, Volume 3. Part 177: Indirect Food Additives: Polymers. Sec. 177.1550, Perfluorocarbon Resins. (accessed August 6, 2016)

 

Phthalates

Cao XL, Zhao W, Churchill R, Hilts C. Occurrence of Di-(2-ethylhexyl) adipate and phthalate plasticizers in samples of meat, fish, and cheese and their packaging films. J Food Prot. 2014 Apr;77(4):610-20.

The Endocrine Disruption Exchange: Phthalates (accessed August 5, 2016)

Environmental Defense Fund Blog: FDA agrees to reconsider safety of orthophthalates. April 13, 2016 (accessed August 5, 2016)

European Chemicals Agency: Candidate List of substances of very high concern for Authorisation (accessed July 31, 2016)

Factor-Litvak P, Insel B, Calafat AM, Liu X, Perera F, Rauh VA, Whyatt RM. 2014. Persistent associations between maternal prenatal exposure to phthalates on child IQ at age 7 years. PLoS One 9(12):e114003.

Fierens T, Van Holderbeke M, Willems H, De Henauw S, Sioen I. Transfer of eight phthalates through the milk chain--a case study. Environ Int.2013 Jan;51:1-7.

FDA: DEHP in Plastic Medical Devices (accessed August 5, 2016)

Food Packaging Forum: Phthalates. October 2012. (accessed July 31, 2016)

International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC): 2013 Monographs on the Evaluation of Carcinogenic Risks to Humans (volume 101), DEHP (accessed August 5, 2016)

Lowell Center for Sustainable Production. Phthalates and Their Alternatives: Health and Environmental Concerns (technical briefing). January 2011. (accessed August 5, 2016)

Kappenstein O, Vieth B, Luch A, Pfaff K. Toxicologically relevant phthalates in food. EXS. 2012;101:87-106.

Koch HM, Lorber M, Christensen KL, Pälmke C, Koslitz S, Brüning T. Identifying sources of phthalate exposure with human biomonitoring: results of a 48h fasting study with urine collection and personal activity patterns. Int J Hyg Environ Health. 2013 Nov;216(6):672-81.

Safer Chemicals, Healthy Families: Menards joins Home Depot and Lowes in eliminating toxic phthalates in flooring (press release, July 9, 2015) (accessed August 5, 2016)

Schecter, Arnold et al. Phthalate Concentrations and Dietary Exposure from Food Purchased in New York State. Environmental Health Perspectives. Volume 121 Issue 4 April 2013.

Serrano SE, Braun J, Trasande L, Dills R, Sathyanarayana S. Phthalates and diet: a review of the food monitoring and epidemiology data. Environ Health. 2014;13: 43.

Storrs, Corina. Fast food serves up phthalates, too, study suggests. CNN. April 18, 2016. (accessed August 5, 2016)

UK Food Standards Agency: Determination of phthalates in foods and establishing methodology to distinguish their source. February 2008. (accessed August 5, 2016)

Zota AR, Phillips CA, Mitro SD. Recent Fast Food Consumption and Bisphenol A and Phthalates Exposures among the U.S. Population in NHANES, 2003-2010. Environ Health Perspect. 2016 Apr 13.

 

General

European Commission. Chemical Safety. Food Contact Materials. (accessed August 4, 2016)

FDA: List of Indirect Additives Used in Food Contact Substances (accessed August 6, 2016)

Food Packaging Forum (Switzerland-based nonprofit organization) (accessed August 4, 2016)

Official Journal of the European Union. COMMISSION REGULATION (EU) No 10/2011 of 14 January 2011 on plastic materials and articles intended to come into contact with food. (accessed August 4, 2016)

 

Photo credits: store shelves, baby, frying pans, popcorn bag, fast food meal

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