Plastic Packaging: An Alphabet Soup of Chemicals

Troy Swope
Chief Executive Officer at Footprint


Everyone knows the five-second rule. Maybe if your house is especially clean — or if you’re especially brave — it’s the 10-second rule. Of course, we are talking about the amount of time food is allowed to have been in contact with the floor before it supposedly becomes too contaminated to eat.

Certainly, household surfaces and the germs that live there pose a risk.

But how much thought have you given to the chemical-based packaging that surrounds your food for days to weeks at a time, from the farm, factory or fast-food restaurant, all the way to your fridge?

Many films, bags, and containers are made from petroleum-derived plastics. Peer-reviewed scientific studies have proven that some of these man-made substances leach into food. And there is mounting evidence that they are hazardous to our health. Several chemicals used in food packaging are toxins known to cause hormone disruption.

Hundreds more have not been evaluated by the government for safety. We know nothing about how they affect our bodies. Currently, more than 10,000 chemicals are legally permitted in the United States to be added to food or to come into contact with food.

These packaging chemicals number comprise a veritable alphabet soup of synthetic compounds.

They include bisphenol A (BPA), Perfluoroalkyl chemicals (PFC), polyethylene (PE), polypropylene (PP), polyethylene terephthalate (PET), polystyrene (PS) and polyvinyl chloride (PVC).

Doesn’t sound very enticing, does it? No one wants a serving of PVC with their BLT.

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Nor does the health risk end after the meal does. When thrown away, these plastics end up in landfills where they can contaminate the soil and water sources.

A Brief History Lesson

To understand how we created this toxic stew, you have to head back in time. It’s important to understand the context that led to our current situation.

In 1958, Congress amended the federal Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act to address growing concerns about the safety of chemicals coming into contact with food. Under the amendment, new substances developed for the food industry after 1958 would have to be tested by the Food and Drug Administration for safety.

 Great news, right?

Hold up, there’s more to the story. Congress also carved out exemptions to safety testing for about 1,000 chemicals already in use, “grandfathering” them and labeling them as “generally recognized as safe” (GRAS).

“Generally recognized as safe” doesn’t exactly sound reassuring, does it?

In the 1960s, some substances on the GRAS list were exposed as carcinogenic. This realization prompted legitimate reforms, but progress was short-lived. In 1997, the already ineffective GRAS list became even more watered-down. The FDA introduced a new rule that allowed companies themselves to decide whether a new substance was safe.

So, in America, a keystone component of public health is nothing more an industry honor system.

Fixing a Broken System

More than sixty years after the 1958 amendment, we are beginning to recognize how broken this approach to food safety is. In 2010, the federal government’s own Accountability Office, issued a scathing report calling for more oversight. 

And, just last year, the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) issued a reportcalling for “more rigorous and transparent” regulations. The group also suggested that families should limit exposure to plastic packaging in the foods their children eat.

Some chemicals used in plastic packaging, the report said, can change the timing of puberty, increase body fat, affect the development of male genitals, disrupt thyroid function and brain development, contribute to gastrointestinal problems, and more.

“Chemicals that affect the endocrine system, for example, can have lasting effects on a child since hormones coordinate complex functions throughout the body,” said Dr. Leonardo Trasande, lead author of the policy statement. “Even small disruptions at key moments during development can have lifelong consequences.”

This summer, scientists, health professionals, environmentalists, and activists met at the inaugural UNWRAPPED Conference in California to spread the word about packaging dangers and think about solutions.

Now is the time for all of us to join the UNWRAPPED movement, reducing our dependence on plastics and limiting our own exposure to toxins.

How to Protect Yourself

There are ways you as an individual can limit your exposure to toxic packaging through personal actions and healthier alternatives. AAP suggests you:

–       Buy and serve more fresh or frozen fruits and vegetables and fewer processed meats.

–       Avoid microwaving food or beverages in plastics.

–       Try to avoid putting plastics in the dishwasher. (Like a microwave, the heat can cause chemicals to leach out.)

–       Use plastic alternatives such as glass or stainless steel, when possible.

–       Avoid plastics with recycling codes 3, 6, and 7, unless they are labeled as “biobased” or “greenware.”

Create a Better World Together

 When we talk about taking personal actions, we also need to recognize that economic and racial inequalities can make it difficult for some people to protect themselves. For many people living in “food deserts,” packaged and processed foods are almost all that’s available. 

Simply put, this is not a personal problem. This is a systemic, collective problem that requires systemic, collective action. We must work toward a society that values sustainable processes, reusable materials, non-toxic packaging, and fresh food — for everyone!

But how do we do that? We start by demanding more from our government.

Organize. Get involved. Join or donate to advocacy groups such as Plastic Health CoalitionPlastic Solutions Fund, and Plastic Pollution Coalition. Write letters. Send emails. Spread the word on social media.

And, above all, support and vote for candidates and decision-makers at every level who will implement policies that support a more sustainable world and greater transparency in the chemical regulatory process.

The unwritten, five-second rule is funny because everyone knows it’s arbitrary and that there’s not an ounce of science behind it. It also conveys our almost comical inability to resist instant gratification. But, when it comes to chemicals, we can’t afford that kind of risk. We need real rules and real protections with real teeth. 

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For more on the latest of the plastics crisis follow me on Twitter @Troy_Swope and on Instagram @Swope.Troy

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