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Common Industrial Chemicals May Be Making Food Unsafe for Kids

How safe is food that’s prepared in factories? Getty Images

Alarmed by growing evidence that common industrial chemicals in food can harm a child’s health, the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) is asking for an overhaul of the regulatory system.

“We’re all exposed to these chemicals every day,” Dr. Sheela Sathyanarayana, a pediatrician and co-author of the AAP statement, told Healthline.

Beyond the evidence that industrial chemicals may promote obesity and cancer — to list just two health issues the group highlighted — the AAP pointed to a lack of research.

In a review of nearly 4,000 industrial chemicals in food, 64 percent had no research showing they were safe for people to eat or drink, the group reported.

“We are exposing our population to chemicals where we just don’t know the effect,” Sathyanarayana said.

Lack of oversight

Currently, risky chemicals may get into food under a Food and Drug Administration (FDA) rule that allows manufacturers to judge the safety of chemicals, without oversight from the agency.

Additionally, other common chemicals that may be unsafe won FDA approval decades ago with out-of-date testing methods.

The lack of regulation applies both to chemicals added directly to food and those that seep into food from plastic, glues, dyes, paper, cardboard, and different types of coatings used for processing and packaging.

Because of the risks from plastic, for example, Laura MacCleery, Policy Director at the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) packs sandwiches in reusable cloth bags rather than plastic wrap or baggies, and her 8-year-old daughter has a metal lunch box.

Additional dangers

Fast food is especially dangerous because chemicals can enter food through industrial equipment. Phthalates, used to make plastics more flexible, enter food through conveyor belts and gloves as well as packaging.

In 2016, ten nonprofits, which included CSPI and the Natural Resources Defense Council(NRDC), petitioned the FDA to rescind approval of 30 currently approved phthalates, and bar the use of 8 of them.

“We expect a decision in October,” petitioner Maricel Maffini, PhD, a biologist and consultant on food additives, told Healthline.

According to a study reported in June, people who eat cheeseburgers that are not made at home are getting big hits of phthalates.

The same study concluded that teens who ate a lot of fast food and other foods purchased outside the home had 55 percent higher levels of phthalates in their urine than those who only consumed homemade food.

Also, DEHP (Di-Ethylhexyl Phthalate), one of the chemicals the group wants banned, has long been seen in surface layers of fatty foods like butter, cheese, and prepared meat packaged in products containing vinyl.

Studies have linked DEHP to diabetes in adult women as well.

In a 2013 study, researchers concluded that exposure to DHEP can up the risk of allergies in children. In 2016, another study concluded that it can affect child behavior.

Phthalates may also affect the growth of male genitals and promote heart disease.

DiNP (Di-Isononyl Phthalate), also on the list of requested bans, has become more common as a substitute. DiNP is less well-researched than DEHP, but it shows similar toxicological effects on lab animals, and it shows up in bigger quantities in the urine of those who eat more fast food.

Around the world, regulators have begun to put limits on exposure to these plastic softeners. Japan banned the use of vinyl gloves for preparing food because the gloves often contain DHEP or DiNP. The European Union is pushing manufacturers to find alternatives. The United States now bans phthalates in toys.

Avoiding food exposed to plastic won’t protect you entirely, since phthalates also show up in soaps and cosmetics among other items. You’d need to steer clear of all industrial products.

What about plastic wrap and containers you use at home? Plastic wrap in the United States contains a “plasticizer” called DEHA that is not a phthalate but is chemically similar to DEHP.