HIDDEN RISKS: A mother feeds her baby with a bottle in Caracas in this file photo. Venezuela’s Congress was to discuss legislation that would prohibit bottle feeding of infants. Picture: Carlos Garcia Rawlins/Reuters

Paediatricians want parents to reduce children’s exposure to plastic and a local study has found only two in eight clingfilms on the market are safe. Numerous chemicals in the food chain that are still untested, we need to start limiting our exposure.

The American Academy of Pediatrics wants parents to limit the use of plastic containers, stop warming food in plastic containers in the microwave and washing plastic in dishwashers, and cutting down on processed food. 

The influential body says children are too exposed to chemicals in food and packaging, which is linked to health issues such as obesity and cancer. It wants more regulation and rigorous testing of the chemicals that we are exposed to. 

Bisphenol A’s (BPA) become the poster child for toxic plastic: hundreds of studies have linked even very low exposure with prostate damage, breast and prostate cancer, endocrine damage, behavioural problems, obesity, infertility, heart disease and diabetes. In 2003, BPA was detected in the urine of 92% of Americans: it’s since been removed from a large section of the food chain, particularly baby bottles, sippy cups and other beverage containers. 

But BPA’s one of a number of bisphenols; we live in a multi-chemical environment, with tens of thousands of additives used in food and cosmetics. The academy’s also raised concern about PFCs, which are used in grease-proof paper, non-stick cookware and packaging; perchlorates, antistatic agents used in plastic packaging; and nitrates and nitrites, which are used in processed meats.
The academy, which represents over 37,000 US specialists, says there are “substantial gaps in data about potential health effects of food additives”.

It’s questioned the widespread use of colourings, flavourings, and chemicals added to food during processing as well as substances in contact with food (adhesives, dyes, coatings, paper, plastic and other polymers) may contaminate food. It’s now called for “urgently needed reforms to the current regulatory process at the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for food additives”. 

The academy says an urgent, substantial improvement is needed of the food additives regulatory system, including “greatly strengthening or replacing the ‘generally recognised as safe’ (GRAS) determination process, updating the scientific foundation of the FDA’s safety assessment programme, retesting all previously approved chemicals, and labelling direct additives with limited or no toxicity data”. 

Dr Natalie Aneck-Hahn, the director of the University of Pretoria’s Environmental Chemical Pollution and Health Research Unit, agrees. 
Last month, Aneck-Hahn and Professor Tiaan de Jager (UP’s dean of Health Sciences), voiced concern about clingfilm, after their research found traces of dangerous chemicals in eight brands.

The researchers tested for endocrine disrupting chemicals (EDCs) – man-made contaminants found in food packaging material and food – such as BPA, phthalates and DEHA (diethyl hexyl adipate, which is banned from use in food products in some countries). EDCs are components of plastic, pesticides, flame retardants, cosmetics and more. We are exposed to these via inhalation, touch, eating and drinking every day. During sensitive life stages such as foetal development and early childhood, exposure to EDCs is particularly concerning because it can cause diseases, metabolic issues, immune system dysfunction, problems with neurodevelopment, and reproductive function.

One brand, in particular, showed a high concentration of these chemicals, especially DEHA: only two, which are endorsed by Cansa, were below the detection limit for all target chemicals. 

These risks represent a worst-case scenario and are based on using cling film daily over a 30-year period, noted De Jager.
Cling film contains plasticisers, which increase the flexibility of a material and decreases its viscosity and brittleness. These EDCs can leach from clingfilm into food, a process known as migration, which is affected by temperature, exposure to UV light, and storage duration. But while migration is accelerated by high temperature, it’s also affected by the types of food. Foods with high fatty content such as cheese, fish and meat are more prone to migration: especially those wrapped in plastic or clingwrap, which are defrosted or cooked in the microwave.

Aneck-Hahn says in 1997, nonylphenol – once readily used in clingwrap – was found to absorb 100% into cheese within 26 hours.  “As indicated in the paediatrics report, I believe it’s time that we started retesting all these products. Children are the most vulnerable to exposure. Per pound/kg their exposure is higher,” she says. 

The Southern African Vinyl Association, the industry body representing the country’s major local clingfilm producers, has dismissed the research, saying it and other international bodies believe PVC products are safe and do not pose any risks to human health. They’ve questioned the research methodology, saying it’s used “outdated information to arrive at misleading conclusions”. 

“The concerns raised by the publication of De Jager et al were thoroughly investigated already years ago and still to date there is no scientific evidence that DEHA is carcinogenic to humans nor toxic to reproduction or an endocrine disruptor”, says Alistair Calder, chairman of SAVA. According to Calder, the European Commission has approved the use of DEHA based on an in-depth evaluation which was undertaken by an expert group reporting to the European Food Safety Authority. 

“PVC is used for very good reasons: performance, durability, safety and affordability. Because its main markets are in durable applications, the worldwide use of PVC is increasing at a healthy pace. The vinyl industry takes great pride in its products. There is an immense amount of knowledge and science that have gone into PVC production and development. Considerable thought and action is given to environmental sustainability, worker and consumer health and safety. We have adapted to change and have made no compromises towards delivering a safe material to the market. We have also proved vinyl is sustainable through various global initiatives. To be flippant about a responsible industry with a very safe product that employs millions, and serves billions, is indicative of inadequate research or playing to the gallery,” Calder said.

Aneck-Hahn disagrees, saying the chemicals have a synergistic or additive effect. “All these low doses might have no effect but added together they can have a far-reaching effect. These are endocrine disruptors – even low dose exposure during foetal development can be dangerous,” she said.

“We tested the brands at a recognised laboratory at Stellenbosch University and did a human health risk assessment according to the guidelines described by the US Environmental Protection Agency (USEPA) 1987, 1992, 2011) and the World Health Organisation. We found these DEHA and phthalates levels at quite high levels. However, it’s more about the combination/ mixture than just one compound. They say that DEHA is not an endocrine disruptor – there is enough scientific evidence to indicate it is. We never advised that clingfilm should be banned – we advised the use of the Cansa-approved clingwrap.”

It’s not about creating sensation around the use of plastics – Aneck-Hahn says we’re exposed to so many different chemicals on a daily basis However, it is difficult to determine individual-level risk and whether there are “safe” levels of exposure to EDCs. Given the range of potential exposure effects efforts to reduce EDC exposure is warranted. 

And levels have come down since 1997. De Jager said: “This means that manufacturers of clingfilm are using safer alternatives compared to the materials previously used.”

He advised: “A start would be to make small changes to our daily choices. Perhaps, for example, if we all try to reduce the amount of food packaging – both in what we buy and in our own homes, we will not only be trying to reduce our exposure… but we will also be making a bonus effort of reducing the amount of plastic on the planet.”

* Georgina Crouth is a consumer watchdog with serious bite. Write to her at [email protected], tweet her @georginacrouth and follow her on Facebook.