Scientists say there is sufficient evidence that phthalates can cause serious harm to human health.
On a scale of 1 to 10, how worried are you about harmful chemicals lurking in your food? Truth be told, you’re probably more concerned about the rising costs of gas and groceries, what your child is or isn’t learning in school (or if they’re even safe at school), whether you should get a better job, how your aging parents are doing . . . you know, life!
Thankfully, advocacy groups are out there fighting for our safety, including food safety. But even they can’t fix all the problems in the food industry despite Herculean efforts. This was clearly demonstrated earlier this month when the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) denied two petitions filed by several allied advocacy groups, including the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF), Center for Environmental Health (CEH), Center for Food Safety (CFS), and Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI), more than six years ago.
However, the FDA, which was authorized by Congress in 1958 to be our protector when it comes to all things food, said the petitions didn’t provide enough scientific information to warrant a ban on these ortho-phthalates.
“CSPI disagrees with FDA’s decisions. The petitions presented sufficient evidence based on what was known in 2016, and the evidence supporting a ban has grown substantially in the years since we submitted the petitions,” Thomas M. Galligan, PhD, CSPI’s principal scientist for food additives and supplements with expertise in endocrine disruption, said in an interview. “Meanwhile, FDA has spent that time doing nothing to protect the public from exposure to phthalates in our food.”
So, maybe we should be worried about harmful chemicals in our food?
What Are Ortho-Phthalates?
Ortho-phthalates (hereafter referred to as phthalates, pronounced THAL-ates) are man-made chemicals used in plastics, solvents, and personal care products. They make plastic products flexible, fragrances in beauty products last longer, and solvents like adhesives dry faster.
Phthalates have been around for more than 50 years and have been used in everything from children’s toys to food packaging to shampoos and medical products like intravenous (IV) tubing, blood bags, and catheters. Phthalates have even been used in foods like Mac-n-Cheese. Some have called phthalates the “everywhere chemical” because they are literally everywhere.
Because phthalates are loosely bonded to their host material, heat, agitation, and/or length of contact time can all make these chemicals leach into our food. Heat mixed with foods high in fat or alcohol content makes the chemicals leach even more. That includes putting hot leftovers in a plastic container or heating up food in the microwave. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), phthalates can enter our bodies from eating foods or drinking beverages contaminated with them and through our nose and mouth (if they’re in the air).
Phthalates don’t collect in the body, but they do break down into metabolites before exiting through urine and feces. Most people today have phthalates in their urine, according to a recent study conducted by the CDC. The study revealed that testing between 2017 and 2018 detected a breakdown product of DEHP, a particularly harmful phthalate, in over 99% of people sampled. (Side note: DEHP was banned for use in children’s toys in 2008, but it is still allowed in food contact products.)
Why Phthalates are Considered Harmful
A growing body of research is revealing that phthalates are toxic and harmful. Considered endocrine disruptors, phthalates have been linked to birth defects, problems with fertility and child development, an increased risk for breast, genital, prostate, ovarian, and breast disease, and even death.
“DEHP . . . can interfere with male sex hormones, like testosterone, which are especially important for male reproduction and development, among other processes in the body,” said Galligan. “The U.S. National Toxicology Program (NTP) determined in 2006 that DEHP can probably harm human reproduction and development based on clear evidence in animal testing. NTP also suspects DEHP causes cancer in people, specifically they classify it as ‘reasonably anticipated to be a human carcinogen.'”
Most recently, a review of reviews published in the journal Environment International stated that researchers “found robust evidence for an association with lower semen quality, neurodevelopment and risk of childhood asthma.” They also identified “moderate evidence for an association between phthalates/metabolites and low birthweight, endometriosis, decreased testosterone, ADHD, Type 2 diabetes and breast/uterine cancer.”
Dr. Ulrike Luderer, a reproductive toxicologist who specializes in developmental toxicology, ovarian function, and reproductive biology and is a professor of environmental and occupational health at the University of California, stated in an interview that multiple studies on animals exposed to phthalates demonstrated alarming changes to the physiology of reproductive organs in males.
The CDC has stated that animal studies aren’t indicative of what can happen to humans when it comes to phthalates. Luderer, however, strongly disagrees. She said animal studies in this area are crucial and very telling.
“Regarding animal studies, the biological pathways and mechanisms that regulate reproductive system development and function are very similar in commonly used animal models and humans,” says Luderer. “Much of what we have learned about human biology was first discovered in animal models.”
Luderer said everyone should be concerned about phthalates because they cause developmental toxicity. She especially warned those seeking to conceive, male or female. And she said anyone pregnant with a boy should also avoid phthalates as best as possible because of how these androgen blocking chemicals negatively affect boys’ reproductive organs in the womb.
What About Those Petitions?
On May 19, when the FDA formally denied the two petitions it received in 2016, the agency simultaneously granted a petition filed in 2018 by a plastics industry group called Flexible Vinyl Alliance, which revoked the use of some phthalates. However, these particular phthalates had already been “abandoned” or phased out by manufacturers. As a result, other phthalates are still allowed for use in food packaging and food contact substances, including DEHP, DEP, DCHP, DINP, and DIDP, Galligan explained.
The FDA noted the petitions addressing these chemicals didn’t offer enough information or scientific evidence to warrant the changes the advocacy groups requested. Tom Neltner, senior director for Safer Chemicals for the EDF and one of the authors of the 2016 petition, believes differently.
In a recent phone interview, he said he feels the FDA really dropped the ball. He referenced two articles on the FDA (one from Politico and another from the Washington Post) as to why there are so many issues with the agency failing to protect the public.
Neltner is not the only one disappointed by the FDA’s decision. Brian Ronholm, director of food policy for Consumer Reports, said the decision was “disappointing because the science is pretty clear that these compounds are linked to adverse effects, especially in children. Not only was the science evident in 2016 when the petition was filed, but it was reinforced through follow-up studies after the filing.”
Dr. Peter G. Lurie, president of CSPI, said the following in a statement posted on CSPI’s website: “For too long, the FDA has largely remained on the sidelines as concerns have mounted over phthalates in food, exposing all of us to unnecessary risk, especially infants, young children, and Black and Latina women. […] I fear it’s a decision the agency will come to regret as we learn even more about the adverse health impacts of these discredited chemicals on vulnerable members of our society.”
And, Patrick MacRoy, deputy director of Defend Our Health, said in the same statement: “It’s inexcusable that the FDA is continuing to allow some of the same chemicals prohibited for use in children’s toys over a decade ago to still be in direct contact with our families’ food.”
Neltner also pointed out that, by law, the FDA is supposed to respond to petitions within 180 days, while this response took six years. In December 2021, the health and environmental advocates that filed the petitions in 2016 sued the FDA because it still had not ruled on the petitions, he said.
Meanwhile, the FDA has issued a request for information regarding the remaining phthalates in use today. According to the statement, the agency is “seeking scientific data and information on current uses, use levels, dietary exposure, and safety data of certain ortho-phthalates. The purpose of this request is to provide FDA with all sources of relevant information to support our review of the current use levels and safe use of these ortho-phthalates in food contact applications.”
What you can do to protect yourself
Neltner said consumers shouldn’t have to worry about whether their food is safe. But here we are. You can opt to use products that say “free of phthalates” or “does not contain phthalates,” but keep in mind that manufacturers don’t have to list phthalates in their ingredients on food products. They also don’t have to list ingredients included in the packaging itself.
So, if you’ve decided you need to protect yourself from phthalates and their potentially harmful effects on your body, here are some tips from Ronholm at Consumer Reports to help minimize your exposure.
- Eat fresh, home-cooked food as much as possible, and avoid ready-to-eat foods at stores and processed foods that come in plastic packaging.
- Drink tap water instead of bottled water.
- Avoid storing food in plastic and instead use glass, silicone, or foil.
- Avoid microwaving food in plastic containers; use conventional heating methods instead, like a stove or oven. If you must, microwave your food in glass containers.
Neltner said he and the other advocacy groups will continue to fight, but if concerned consumers want to help speed things along, they should reach out to their legislators and demand that the FDA step up to the plate. (Find your legislator here).
“Legislators need to hear from constituents that FDA needs to be fixed … for the lost control of the system to protect us from chemicals that are intentionally being added to food and things that contact food,” Neltner concluded.