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Is food packaging a threat to health?

Something doesn't taste right. Our food comes in so much packaging. It is even hard to get into. Scissors, knives, fingers pulling and tugging to get excessively hard packaging open. But is that all we have to worry about? Not according to the latest commentary by environmental scientists in the current issue of the Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health.

The authors of this commentary warn that the synthetic chemicals used in the packaging, storage, and processing of foodstuffs might be harmful to human health over the long term.

This is because most of these substances are not inert and can leach into the foods we eat.

Despite the fact that some of these chemicals are regulated, people who eat packaged or processed foods are likely to be chronically exposed to low levels of these substances throughout their lives.

The authors of the report suggest that far too little is known about their long term impact, including at crucial stages of human development, such as in the womb, which is “surely not justified on scientific grounds.”

They point out that lifelong exposure to food contact materials or FCMs - substances used in packaging, storage, processing, or preparation equipment - “is a cause for concern for several reasons.”

Known toxic substances, such as formaldehyde, a cancer causing substance, are legally used in processed food packaging. Formaldehyde is widely present, albeit at low levels, in plastic bottles used for fizzy drinks and melamine tableware.

Secondly, other chemicals known to disrupt hormone production also crop up in FCMs, including bisphenol A, tributyltin, triclosan, and phthalates.

“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,” the authors point out.

The total number of known chemical substances used intentionally in FCMs exceeds 4000. The major point here is that we do not yet know the accumulative effect of these potentially harmful substances.

Furthermore, potential cellular changes caused by FCMs, and in particular, those with the capacity to disrupt hormones, are not even being considered in routine toxicology analysis, which prompts the authors to suggest that this “casts serious doubts on the adequacy of chemical regulatory procedures.”

They admit that establishing potential cause and effect as a result of lifelong and largely invisible exposure to FCMs will be no easy task, largely because there are no unexposed populations to compare with, and there are likely to be wide differences in exposure levels among individuals and across certain population groups.

But some sort of population-based assessment and biomonitoring are urgently needed to tease out any potential links between food contact chemicals and chronic conditions like cancer, obesity, diabetes, neurological and inflammatory disorders, particularly given the known role of environmental pollutants, they argue.

But is this scary-mongering pure and simple? Like the fear of the dark, is it what we don't know that is of concern and can we shed light where there is currently darkness, a paucity of information. This is the real problem. We just do not know. We have no way of properly assessing the potential harmful consequences of long term exposure. What the authors of this commentary are advising is that we need to start addressing this issue.

“Since most foods are packaged, and the entire population is likely to be exposed, it is of utmost importance that gaps in knowledge are reliably and rapidly filled,” they urge. It will probably take several decades before we have the answers. Meanwhile we just have to hope they are wrong. 

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