By Daniel Rosenberg and Erik Olson, Natural Resources Defense Council
A new study released today provides further evidence that we are being exposed to a class of toxic chemicals that harm male reproduction in our food—with higher levels of exposure from eating at restaurants. The chemicals are called phthalates (pronounced “THAL-eights”) and they are frequently used to soften plastics and for other purposes in food processing. Numerous studies have linked exposure to phthalates in lab animals to a range of effects on male reproduction. The National Academy of Sciences refers to these effects as “phthalate syndrome,” which it says include “undescended testes, malformation of the penis, and other reproductive tract malformations.”
Acting on a mandate from Congress, the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) recently banned the use of five phthalates in toys and children’s products. But experts have long-recognized that food—and particularly dairy products—is the major source of exposure to humans. Phthalates are used in a variety of ways in food processing, including in flexible plastic tubing (such as in milk production), and food packaging. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has long-approved the use of phthalates as “indirect food additives”—meaning that it is known and accepted that the chemicals will leach from the various food production processes into the food supply.
An expert panel appointed by the CPSC, while recommending the ban on several phthalates in children’s toys and child care articles, also called on the FDA to take action to address the exposures occurring in food. NRDC and nine of our colleague organizations petitioned the FDA two years ago to withdraw its approval for uses of these toxics chemicals as food additives, but so far FDA has done little but stall. Meanwhile, pressure is rising on food manufacturers to identify the sources of phthalates in their product lines and eliminate them, without waiting to be told to do so by the federal government. Last summer, the Coalition for Safer Food Processing and Packaging (of which NRDC is a member) tested a range of products including cheese, yogurt and infant formula. Among products in which phthalates were found, thus far Kraft Mac and Cheese has garnered the most scrutiny. Neither Kraft-Heinz nor the FDA was moved by those test results. Perhaps the new study will do the trick. The research, completed by scientists at George Washington University, University of California, Berkeley and University of California, San Francisco found that dining out at restaurants, cafeterias and fast-food outlets is associated with higher levels of phthalates in the body, particularly if cheeseburgers and other sandwiches are consumed. The study is a follow-up to a previous study that focused more narrowly on fast food consumption.
The disturbing news is another piece of evidence to confirm that the FDA is failing to protect us from toxic chemicals in our food and underscores the dangers of the Trump Administration’s abandonment of fulfilling the federal government’s duty to protect the public from toxic chemicals under several existing laws. The Administration has already backed away from a proposed ban on toxic pesticides that contaminate our food and poison our rural communities, and shelved a proposed ban on toxic solvents that cause cancer, reproductive harm and pose acute risks including death. Perhaps that’s not too surprising when you know that the major manufacturers of the chemicals of concern including phthalates, chlorpyrifos, methylene chloride and trichloroethylene are made by some of the Trump Administration’s “good friends”—chemical industry giants including Dow and Exxon.
President Trump doesn’t care about the health threats posed by toxic chemicals in food. In the face of total abdication from federal officials to protect the public, individual states and food producers need to pick up the slack. States should be acting quickly to protect the public from these same chemicals. And the food manufacturers—who have for too long been allies of the chemical manufactures—need to start putting the safety of their customers first. Failure to get on top of this problem and eliminate phthalates from their products will leave name brand companies very vulnerable to consumer dissatisfaction and abandonment. Something their shareholders may find hard to swallow.