Jul 26, 2018

The next PFAS or BPA? Why businesses must get ahead of hormone-disrupting chemicals

GREENBIZ: American consumers are growing increasingly concerned about food safety and chemical hazards. Over the past 10 years, the market has shifted away from products containing bisphenol A (BPA) — previously found in baby bottles, sippy cups and food packaging — following widespread consumer demand for safer products. But BPA is not the only chemical of concern in the food supply that should be on the radar of sustainability professionals.

Meet the new BPA: phthalates and PFAS. 

Over the past year, a tidal wave of media and public attention has been paid to per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) chemicals, and how they have contaminated the drinking water of millions of Americans coast to coast. But most major grocery, big box and restaurant chains may not realize that PFAS and another class of toxic chemicals called phthalates are hiding in the food and food packaging they serve to their customers every day, posing a hidden business liability to retailers and brands. Phthalates and PFAS are used in food processing, packaging and preparation. In fact, they're found in America's favorite brands of food products, despite that they pose notable hidden financial, legal, regulatory and reputational liabilities to businesses.

Unfortunately, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration lacks the mandate, budget and political will to modernize our broken chemical safety system to address these chemicals. That's why the business community must lead once again, just like it did on BPA.

The opportunity to lead

Grocery stores have the market power and responsibility to meet rising consumer demand for safer food, especially in the absence of leadership by our federal government. We encourage these companies to develop proactive strategies to address the hidden hazards posed by phthalates and PFAS.

Over the last five years, Safer Chemicals, Healthy Families has led the Mind the Store campaign to assist and encourage major retailers in improving the chemical safety of the products and packaging they buy and sell. Last year, our second annual "Retailer Report Card" graded 30 companies on their safer chemical policies and practices, including major grocery chains such as Kroger, Albertsons, Ahold Delhaize, Whole Foods and Trader Joe's. This fall, we plan to release an expanded report card, which will evaluate an even greater number of companies, including additional grocery stores.

Along with our partners at the Environmental Health Strategy Center and Toxic-Free Future,  last month, we sent letters to over 75 of the nation's top grocery and restaurant chains, urging them to take action on phthalates and PFAS. Let's briefly examine the case for action.

Phthalates in the food supply — a major source of exposure

Eating food is the major way that most people are exposed to these hormone-disrupting chemicals, which many studies link to harm to reproductive health and brain development.

Daily exposure to phthalates poses an unacceptable cumulative health risk to women of childbearing age and young children, according to federal and academic scientists. Phthalates are industrial chemicals widely used to soften plastic (especially vinyl or PVC) and rubber, and in adhesives, inks, sealants, coatings and fragrance. Research shows that phthalates migrate into foods from every point along the supply chain: at the farm level, in processing plants, from food packaging and during food preparation.

Last year, The New York Times broke the story that processed macaroni and cheese was laden with phthalates, which led to a wave of media coverage, posing reputational liabilities to Kraft and other manufacturers. A recent study found that dining out was associated with the highest phthalate exposure among Americans, suggesting that materials used in food preparation in restaurants are an additional source of these chemicals.

Here's the good news: Safer alternatives to phthalates are widely available, effective and affordable. Surely if companies can get them out of vinyl flooring and toys, they can get them out of food contact materials.

PFAS, the highly fluorinated chemicals in food contact materials

PFAS includes some of the most long-lived chemicals known to science. They don't readily break down in the environment, may build up in our bodies and are highly mobile, enabling them to contaminate drinking water.

These highly fluorinated chemicals were commercialized without adequate data or safety assurance. Yet research links PFAS exposure to reproductive and developmental toxicity, harm to the liver and kidney and hormone disruption. The use of PFAS poses a long-term hazard and will continue to release problematic persistent chemicals into the air and drinking water for decades and centuries to come.

PFAS are widely used to impart resistance to grease, stains and water in food serviceware and packaging, textiles and other materials. A 2017 study found that 33 percent of fast food packaging tested still contained PFAS, where they can make their way into our food. Like phthalates, safer alternatives are available.

Read full at: