Chemicals used for packaging, storing and processing food could damage people’s health in the long term, experts have warned.
Cancer-causing substances and hormone disruptors are among thousands of chemicals leaching into food in tiny amounts, leading to “chronic” exposure over a lifetime, they said. The environmental scientists warn that more needs to be done to fill gaps in knowledge about the long-term effects of exposure to food contact materials (FCMs).
They said “acknowledged toxicants” are legally used in FCMs in Europe, the US and other parts of the world, including China. While some are regulated, too little is known about their long-term impact, they said.
There has also been little research on exposure to such chemicals at critical points in human development, such as in the womb and during early childhood, which is “surely not justified on scientific grounds”.
Formaldehyde – a known cancer-causing substance – is present at low levels in plastic bottles and melamine tableware, while FCMS also contain endocrine-disrupting chemicals (EDCs) such as bisphenol A, tributyltin, triclosan and phthalates. Exposure to EDCs in the womb could potentially lead to chronic disease in later life, the scientists said in an article in the Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health.
They also called for more work to establish whether there are any links between food chemicals and diseases such as cancer, and obesity and neurological disorders.
The World Health Organisation and the UN Environment Programme said EDCs are a “global public health threat”, so it is vital that “knowledge gaps” on FCMs are reliably and rapidly filled, the experts said.
They concluded: “Whereas the science for some of these substances is being debated and policy makers struggle to satisfy the needs of stakeholders, consumers remain exposed to these chemicals daily, mostly unknowingly.”
Humans who consume packaged or processed foods “are chronically exposed to synthetic chemicals at low levels throughout their lives”.
The writers, who include Jane Muncke, from the Food Packaging Forum Foundation in Zurich, said the potential cellular changes caused by the chemicals are not being considered in routine toxicology analysis. This, they argue, “casts serious doubts on the adequacy of chemical regulatory procedures”.
Dr Ian Musgrave, senior lecturer in the faculty of medicine at the University of Adelaide, said it was hard to take the article seriously.
He said: “Formaldehyde is also present in many foods naturally. To consume as much formaldehyde as is present in a 100g apple, you would need to drink at least 20 litres of mineral water that had been stored in polyethylene terephthalate (PET) bottles.
“Obviously the concern about formaldehyde from food packaging is significantly overrated, unless we are willing to place ‘potential cancer hazard’ stickers on fresh fruit and vegetables.”
Sir Colin Berry, emeritus professor of pathology at Queen Mary University of London, said: “Here we have the assertion that very small exposures to certain compounds may have an effect but none has been demonstrated.
“Some of the substances listed by the authors may cause effects at high doses from direct exposures and these have already been banned - the risk has been managed. It is unlikely that compounds eluted from packaging have significant damaging effects on health because the doses experienced by people are very, very low.”
He said the experts had failed to mention the benefits of the substances used in food packaging, such as the fact they prevent contamination during handling and prevent deliberate tampering.
David Coggon, professor of occupational and environmental medicine at the University of Southampton, said: “It is well recognised that leaching of chemicals from food contact materials may pose risks to health, and the European Food Safety Authority has an expert panel that advises on this problem.
“Based on toxicological assessment, maximum levels of contamination from, for example, plastics, are legally prescribed, and testing is carried out to ensure compliance. Sometimes products have to be withdrawn because they breach the limits.
“That said, several aspects of the article are misleading. While formaldehyde has been classified as a human carcinogen, there is strong evidence that any effects on the risk of cancer, even from very prolonged high exposures, are small.
“Moreover, formaldehyde is formed naturally in the body, for example from methanol that is present in fruit. Thus we should only be concerned about relatively high exposures to the compound, and even then any risks will be extremely small.”
Jon Ayres, professor of environmental and respiratory medicine at the University of Birmingham, said the article was “alarmist”.
He added: “There is no denying that lower doses of some substances ingested over long periods may in principle have a deleterious effect but the issue is how to recognise any such effects and then to quantify these effects.
“But can these effects really be anything other than modest at worst when few have been recognised to date? A call for a different approach to these substances does not really help.”