By Jerri-Lynn Scofield, who has worked as a securities lawyer and a derivatives trader. She is currently writing a book about textile artisans.
It’s been just a little over a year since I started writing regularly about the problems posed by plastics (see Plastic Free July: What YOU Can Do to Reduce Plastics Waste). My interest in this subject arose from a more general concern over waste and our throwaway culture– something I first discussed in the context of fast fashion (see The High Hidden Costs of Fast Fashion), and then later, with respect to the right to repair (see Waste Not, Want Not: Right to Repair Laws on Agenda in Some States). But the concern over plastics was further stimulated by my horror, while diving in Vietnam, seeing first-hand the scourge of plastics waste in the ocean.
So far, most of my plastics posts focus on this waste angle. The present post is a bit different, as in it I discuss a report issued this month by the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) about the health concerns with using plastics, particularly for children. I include a link to the full report, published in the August Pediatrics: Food Additives and Child Health (hereafter, AAP report). For those readers who lack time to read the full report, this press release summarizes its gist: American Academy of Pediatrics Says Some Common Food Additives May Pose Health Risks to Children (hereafter AAP press release.)
Currently, the United States permits the use of more than 10,000 additives in foods, for various purposes, including preserving, packaging, or making food look or taste better. Many additives were grandfathered in for approval during the 1950s, and roughly 1,000 additives qualify for a “Generally Recognized as Safe” designation process that doesn’t require U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approval, according to the AAP press release. Further:
“There are critical weaknesses in the current food additives regulatory process, which doesn’t do enough to ensure all chemicals added to foods are safe enough to be part of a family’s diet,” said Dr. Leonardo Trasande, MD, MPP, FAAP, an AAP Council on Environmental Health member and lead author of the policy statement. “As pediatricians, we’re especially concerned about significant gaps in data about the health effects of many of these chemicals on infants and children.”
Some additives are placed directly in foods, while other indirect additives creep in during packaging and processing. Plastics fall into the latter category.
The report identified six types of additives of most concern, based on rising research. These include bisphenols, such as BPA; phthalates; perfluoroalkyl chemicals (PFCs); perchlorate; artificial food coolers; and nitrates/nitrates. I won’t summarize the health concerns raised by each of those categories; interested readers may find more detail either in the AAP report, or the AAP press release. But problems include abnormal brain development; obesity; autism; attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder; and limited muscle mass and bone strength.
I will mention, however, that the AAP notes that each category of additive poses greater health concerns for children, as they ingest more of these substances relative to their body weight than do adults, and because the impact of these substances is more harmful for their developing and growing bodies. According to the AAP press release:
“Chemicals that affect the endocrine system, for example, can have lasting effects on a child since hormones coordinate complex functions throughout the body,” Dr. Trasande said. “Even small disruptions at key moments during development can have lifelong consequences,” he said.
Another AAP official, AAP Council on Environmental Health Chairperson Dr. Jennifer Lowry, MD, FAAP, called for retesting all additives, as existing safety data is based on outdated testing methods or animal studies. She highlighted a recent study of 4000 additives that concluded there was no research for 64% of these to support that they were safe for human consumption.
The full AAP report outlines some concerns in greater detail:
…[T]he FDA does not have authority to obtain data on or reassess the safety of chemicals already on the market. This issue is of great importance and concern for chemicals approved decades ago on the basis of limited and sometimes antiquated testing methods. For instance, some compounds, such as styrene and eugenol methyl ether, remain approved for use as flavoring agents, although they have been subsequently classified as reasonably anticipated to be human carcinogens by the US National Toxicology Program.
Further compounding the problems noted above are other shortcomings within agency procedures. For example, the FDA does not regularly consider cumulative effects of food additives in the context of other chemical exposures that may affect the same biological receptor or mechanism, despite their legal requirement to do so. Synergistic effects of chemicals found in foods are also not considered. Synergistic and cumulative effects are especially important, given that multiple food contaminants, such as polybrominated diphenyl ethers, perchlorate, and organophosphate pesticides, can disrupt various aspects of the thyroid hormone system. Dietary interactions may also be important, given that iodine sufficiency is essential for thyroid function.
In addition, the FDA’s toxicological testing recommendations have not been updated on the basis of new scientific information…. (citations omitted).
Time for an FDA Overhaul?
So, this means that currently, the FDA lacks regulatory authority to review existing data on additives already on the market, or to re-test their safety for human consumption. New legislation would be required to plug this gap. The AAP report includes specific recommendations for Congress and the FDA, but in the interests of keeping this post short, I’ll not discuss those here.
This defective framework is no doubt a feature, not a bug. Nonetheless, in the current political environment, I shudder to see what Congresscritters would come up with if they seriously got ‘round to overhauling the FDA’s statutory authority.
So, in the meantime, in the face of overwhelming scientific ignorance over exactly what plastics can do to growing, developing children’s bodies– not to mention their cumulative effects on those of us who’ve logged longer innings on the planet– the AAP recommends self-help measures everyone can take to limit exposure to plastics and problematic chemicals for themselves and their children. I find it shocking, sad, and pathetic that the regulatory system is so lacking, but am glad the AAP has reduced this report to simple recommendations that can reduce risks:
Buy and serve more fresh or frozen fruits and vegetables, and fewer processed meats–especially during pregnancy.
Since heat can cause plastics to leak BPA and phthalates into food, avoid microwaving food or beverages (including infant formula and pumped human milk) in plastic when possible. Also try to avoid putting plastics in the dishwasher.
Use alternatives to plastic, such as glass or stainless steel, when possible.
Avoid plastics with recycling codes 3 (phthalates), 6 (styrene), and 7 (bisphenols) unless they are labeled as “biobased” or “greenware.”
Wash hands thoroughly before and after touching food and clean all fruits and vegetables that cannot be peeled.
What does the FDA have to say about this report? According to USA Today:
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration is reviewing the paper’s findings, press officer Megan McSeveney told USA TODAY. She also stressed that there is “reasonable scientific certainty” that additives “generally recognized as safe” are not harmful when used as directed. If new information indicates substances are unsafe, the FDA has the authority to change previous guidelines or require that use of a substance is reduced or prohibited.
Well, that reassurance is certainly going to help me sleep better at night.
Seriously, I’m not reassured by that advice.
Instead, let me give the last word to Scary Mommy’s recommendation in AAP Says Don’t Use The Dishwasher For Plastic Bottles And Sippy Cups:
In the meantime, parents might want to brush up on those hand-washing skills.
Actually, sounder advice for both parents and non-parents alike, is to use alternatives to plastic, such as glass and stainless steel, whenever possible. Not only is that course of action better for health, but to bring me back to where I started, it would also avoid creating more plastic waste..