Food Contaminated with Toxic Chemical Is Hard to Avoid—Even if You Try

by Jordan Schneider

Harmful chemicals are ubiquitous in the products we use every day, from our furniture and electronics to our personal care products. Too often, gaps in chemicals policy allow manufacturers to bring these harmful substances to market without proving they are safe for human health and the environment; this places the burden on recognizing the presence of these chemicals and understanding their risks on consumers. That’s why it is so important for manufacturers to eliminate harmful chemicals from their products, from the beginning of the design stages through manufacturing and packaging. 

A new study from researchers at the University of Washington revealing how chemicals such as bisphenol A (BPA) and phlalates can creep into our diets—even if we try to avoid them—underscores the urgency of stopping production of these chemicals altogether. 

The original intent of the study was to measure the effectiveness of public education campaigns aimed at avoiding BPA and phthalates, both endocrine-disrupting chemicals found in food packaging and personal care products. Exposure to these chemicals can contribute to a variety of health problems, including defects in the development of the reproduction system, behavioral problems, and increased risk of obesity, diabetes, and cancer. (Read more of our reports on the health impacts of these chemicals here.)

Researchers placed one group of families on a catered diet of local, fresh, organic food that was not cooked, prepared, or stored in plastic containers. Another group of families received only instructions on how to avoid contaminated foods.

In an outcome that surprised researchers, the families on the catered diet had urinary concentrations of phthalates that were 100-fold higher than in the general population. Researchers then tested for and found phthalates in the dairy products and spices they had used to create the catered diet—enough to expose children three to six years old to 183 milligrams per kilogram of their body weight per day, which is much higher than EPA’s recommended limit of mg/kg/day, according to the study.

The study’s lead author has suggested that the repetitive nature of the catered diet may have contributed to the elevated phthalate levels in the urine of the study participants, but tracking where the contamination came from would be nearly impossible.  

Our own research has shown that some manufacturers are working to replace harmful substances in their products with safer alternatives, but these companies are the exception, rather than the rule. Stronger chemical policies can do more to promote development and widespread adoption of safer alternatives to toxic chemicals, protecting our environment and our health.