Tom Philpott reports for Mother Jones magazine that industrial chemicals are contained in the food-supply, most especially dairy and spices, no matter whether it’s from local sources or not. He sites a study by Sheela Sathyanarayana of the University of Washington’s Seattle Children’s Research Institute that measured amounts of BPA and phthalates in humans.
Bisphenol A (BPA) and phthalates are what’s known as “endocrine disruptors”—that is, at very small doses they interfere with our hormonal systems, giving rise to all manner of health trouble. In peer-reviewed research, BPA has been linked to asthma, anxiety,obesity, kidney and heart disease, and more. The rap sheet for phthalates, meanwhile, includes lower hormones in men, brain development problems, diabetes, asthma,obesity, and, possibly, breast cancer.
So, ingesting these industrial chemicals is a bad idea, especially if you’re a kid or a pregnant woman. But avoiding them is very difficult, since they’re widely used in plastics, and are ubiquitous in the food supply. The federal government has not seen fit to ban them generally—although the FDA did outlaw BPA from baby bottles last year (only after the industry had voluntarily removed them) and Congress pushed phthalates out of kids’ toys back in 2008. Otherwise, consumers are on their own to figure out how to avoid ingesting them.
He explains the recent study of BPA and phthalates conducted with, “Two sets of five local families.”
After using urine tests to establish baseline BPA and phthalate levels for each group, they subjected one set of families to five days of eating meals from a catering company that avoids plastics and uses fresh and, when possible, local and organic ingredients. The other set was given “handouts describing best practice recommendations to reduce phthalate and BPA exposures” and asked to follow them as well as possible as they prepared their meals over the course of the five days. Levels of the chemicals were then again measured after the five-day period.
“I’m a pediatrician, and people are always asking me, ‘What can we do in the home to reduce our exposure to these chemicals?'” Sathyanarayana told me. The idea was to figure out whether merely giving people common sense tips—reduce consumption of canned foods, avoid contact between food and heated plastic, etc.—was sufficient for achieving significant exposure reductions. They assumed that the catered diet, with its fresh, plastic-free foods, would see their levels of these chemicals drop, and that the families merely following good-practices guidelines wouldn’t see much of a change. The takeaway would be: The guidelines aren’t enough, and we need to do more to protect people from these chemicals, because switching to completely scratch-cooked meals isn’t an option for most families.
The results of the study seem baffling, as if chemical plastics are ubiquitous in the food supply. But, the best way to ensure that chemical plastics do not turn up in food is to go back to cooking from scratch. Philpott continues:
Stunned by their outlier results, Sathyanarayana and her team went back to the caterer and tested a range of ingredients for phthalates (they didn’t test the food for BPA). The researchers found high levels of DEHP in two kinds of foods: dairy, which had come in glass bottles from a local farm, and spices, which were certified organic but imported. All of the rest of the ingredients showed very low levels. (See table, right). Sathyanarayana said that phthalate levels for children in the study spiked even higher than those of the adults—probably because they may have consumed more dairy products than the adults, and because of their lower body weights.
Sathyanarayana told me that spices and dairy are well established as carriers of phthalates. She pointed me to this 2006 European study (PDF) on a range of foods (see table IV) that also found high levels in those foodstuffs. She added that the levels found in the milk and spices used by the caterer were much higher than levels found in previous studies.
I asked Sathyanarayana how phthalates could be getting into glass-bottled milk from a Washington dairy that sells into the Seattle market. She stressed that the group had no specific information on the dairy itself and had only tested its retail milk, cream, and butter. But she pointed out that that even in relatively small commercial dairies, milk is collected by from cows’ udders through soft, flexible plastic tubing—the very kind that often contains phthalates, which are used to make plastic flexible. “It’s warm milk going through soft plastic, and we know that when phthalates in plastic are heated, there’s leaching,” Sathyanarayana said. She stressed that her analysis of possible pathways for exposure was purely conjectural.