Is Toxic Plastic Leeching Into Food?
February 23, 2014

Is Toxic Plastic Leeching Into Food?

I feel like I am being shrink-wrapped on the outside and plasticized inside. You just can’t get away from it. Plastic is everywhere and this is not the first time I have covered the environmental and toxicity dangers of plastic here on redOrbit. But new findings on the subject crop up all the time and this week was no exception. The publication of an article  in the Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health (part of the British Medical Journal group) highlights the dangers of plastics in food contact materials, or “FCMs.” These are described as articles “used in packaging, food storage, processing, or preparation” that at some stage are in direct contact with what we eat. My first thought on hearing about the problems with FCMs was that it referred to things like cling film or the plastic wraps on the food we buy, such as pre-packaged meat. But reading the description of FCMs makes it clear that even if we buy food that is not in plastic at the point of sale, there is every likelihood that somewhere along the production process some contact with plastic will have taken place. As so often in these cases, it is not what we see that is so much of a problem. We can choose not to buy food wrapped in plastic but how do we know it has not come into contact with potentially toxic plastic at some point? Some examples given in the article are plastic being used in the coatings on cans, in the lamination of drinks cartons, or in the closures on glass jars and bottles. Though we might think plastic is inert because of its apparent impermeability, which makes it useful in the first place. It isn’t; many of the chemicals in FCMs such as “monomers, additives, processing aids or reaction by-products” can and do leech into food.

Let’s look at the findings. While admitting that the tiny amounts of plastic that diffuse into food through the processes described above are probably not harmful in themselves, the environmental scientists who carried out the work point out that as yet no one knows or can calculate the cumulative effects on the body over a lifetime. It is the long-term impact of these substances, many of which are regulated but still used, that is worrying as exposure begins in the womb and lasts until we die. Formaldehyde, for example, is a known carcinogen but is used at low levels in drinks containers and even melamine tableware. In all, over 400 chemicals were identified as FCMs, including some known to cause disruption to hormone production. The potential for cellular changes caused by these FCM chemicals are not included in routine testing for toxicity, casting doubt on the validity of regulatory testing. An additional problem is that it is now impossible to carry out traditional control group testing as there is no significantly sized population group that is not contaminated by plastic. We all have traces in our bodies but we don’t know the potential effects and that, as this research points out, is the problem. They want to see major studies in the form of “population based assessment and biomonitoring” into FCM uses and dangers.

FCM chemicals are not treated equally around the world. Take Bisphonel A. This is a known endocrine disruptor and there are serious concerns about its dangers for human fertility and health. Its use in baby feeding bottles is banned in the US and across Europe will be banned completely for food packaging use in France from 2015. Yet this industrial substance is widely used in bottles and in the lining of metal food and drink cans right across the globe, including America and Europe.

Don’t expect big money research or regulatory changes any time soon; the usual vested interest groups are already lining up to dismiss the research, but the lesson is clear to me. If we don’t know the dangers we cannot make informed decisions. The plasticization of human bodies and the environment around us will continue.

Image Credit: V. J. Matthew / Shutterstock

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Eric Hopton is a writer, musician, artist, and photographer. He has a degree in Social Anthropology and has always been passionate about travel, having so far visited 73 countries. His music and sound work has been used in many projects around the world and can be heard on Bandcamp and Freesound, where he has contributed over 1,300 sounds under his sonic alter ego, ERH.

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