Concerns over chemicals in food packaging misplaced, say scientists

According to scientists, concerns over synthetic chemicals found in containers and bottles made of plastic that can contaminate drinks and food are mostly wrong in response to demands for more monitoring of the long-term impact on health.

Certain environmentalists and campaigners are now scrutinizing food packaging. In a comment published in the Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health, Professor Jane Muncke of the Food Packaging Forum Foundation in Zurich, Switzerland, and colleagues from the US and Spain claim that lifetime exposure to chemicals from food packaging is cause for concern.

They demand “population-based assessment and biomonitoring” to determine whether the material is causing harm. Food contact substances, according to them, “are a significant source of chemical food contamination, although legally they are not considered as contaminants.” The materials have been identified as “a new exposure source in the sense that they have received little attention so far in studies concerned with human health effects,” they declare.

However, Muncke and coworkers came under harsh criticism from other scientists who claimed there was no evidence of risk at the extremely minimal levels of contamination found in beverages and food. They were severely criticized for mentioning Formaldehyde, an agent that causes cancer, which is used legally in bottles for fizzy drinks and tableware made of melamine. The critics noted that Formaldehyde is a natural ingredient in certain food items.

“To consume as much Formaldehyde as is present in a 100g apple, you would need to drink at least 20 liters of mineral water stored in PET [polyethylene terephthalate] bottles. 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,” said Dr Ian Musgrave, a senior lecturer in the medical department of Adelaide’s University of Adelaide.

David Coggon, professor of occupational and environmental medicine at the University of Southampton, said: “Formaldehyde is formed naturally within the body such as Methanol, which is found in fruits. So, we need to be concerned only about significant exposures to the compound, and even then, the risk is minimal.

“While it is crucial to consider the dangers posed by endocrine disrupting chemicals in our diets as well in the context of risk assessments for chemicals, some among the strongest hormone disruptors occur naturally in chemicals, like soya.

“The article refers to possible toxic effects from combined exposures to multiple contaminants which individually are all at low levels, but understanding of this area of science has advanced a lot in the past 15 years, and there is little to suggest that such combined exposures pose a threat to health other than in a few very specific circumstances.”

However, concerns over certain ingredients used in food packaging have been addressed recently. Bisphenol A is an industrial chemical used to make clear, hard plastic found in various bottles and cans of food and drinks, which has been used as a lining to be removed for food products in France starting in 2015. The use of bisphenol A in the production of baby bottles is already banned across Europe and the US.

Bisphenol A is an endocrinological disruptor. It is a chemical that mimics the hormone estrogen. There is a risk that it might affect humans’ health and fertility. It is believed that it could affect fertility and health. European and US food safety authorities claim it’s safe at deficient levels found in some food items, but more studies are being conducted.

Prof. Andy Smith, senior scientist at the MRC Toxicology Unit in Leicester, said that authorities had the issue under control and surveillance. “Contamination of food by packaging is not a new issue and is already the subject of European and other studies. Many of the chemicals detected already are of such low levels that they are likely to pose no significant risk to consumers,” the professor said.

“The authors propose widening the net to analyse so many chemicals along the food chain, and in relation to so many different biological processes, that it is unlikely that any significant causal findings would be achieved through epidemiological studies, which would require large-scale resources. The logistical problems would be immense.”

Others have noted that packaging can protect food products. “No consideration is made in this commentary of likely benefits of the substances used in food packaging: they prevent contamination during handling (bacterial and viral), they prevent deliberate tampering (which has been previously documented with over-the-counter medicines and in deliberate introduction of harmful agents into foods), and there is also the simple point that you have to have something on which to print information about the foodstuff inside,” Sir Colin Berry, emeritus professor of pathology at Queen Mary, University of London.

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