Endocrine Disrupting Chemicals Common in Packaging for Food and Drink

BPA in Cans

via The Environmental Working Group

One of our biggest concerns is the array of chemicals we are exposed to on a daily basis, much of it from the disposable packaging in which prepared foods and commercial beverages are provided. A recent interview on NPR’s Living on Earth featured Laura Vandenberg, a research fellow at Tufts’ Center for Regenerative and Developmental Biology. She was discussing her new study looking at the harm to humans from endocrine disruptors, chemicals that mimic hormones within the human body.  These chemicals include BPA (Bisphenol A) and phthalates. BPA is used in the epoxy lining of most canned products, whether soup, veggies or soda pop, while phthalates are found in certain plastics, like #1 PET and #3 PVC. Endocrine disrupting chemicals migrate from the packaging materials right into our food and drink.  Ms. Vandenberg’s work shows that minute amounts of the chemicals – parts per billion, even parts per trillion, can have serious effects on the human body.

Environmental Working Group is currently circulating a petition to the FDA to remove BPA from food packaging, which you can sign here.

The chemistry and plastics industry have always insisted that the very low doses of chemicals that leach into edible products are not harmful to us.  Indeed, the American Chemistry Council, a trade association for the U.S. plastics industry, has a website “FAQs: The Safety of Plastic Beverage Bottles” specifically intended to allay consumer fears.  Not only does the site reassure us that the FDA strictly regulates food packaging for safety, but it also states that with regard to chemical leaching, a 1989 study (that would be 23 years ago now) found levels of chemical compounds in PET to be “well below applicable safety levels.”

Laura Vandenberg’s research has produced a starkly different finding.  Her interview concludes with this “takeaway for the layperson”:

Chemicals that act like hormones are not safe at the doses that we are exposed to. There is no safe dose of a chemical that mimics a hormone.

As she wrote for Environmental Health News this week, “Academic, regulatory and industry scientists must work together to identify and replace such chemicals that are ubiquitous in everyday consumer products. Reducing and eventually eliminating these exposures is absolutely needed to protect human health. ”

We consumers can do our part, too, by avoiding canned goods and plastic-packaged foods and beverages. We can buy fresh foods and prepare them at home. We can favor non-leaching containers, such as glass and stainless steel. And we can push both corporations and the FDA to take action on these latest findings.






  1. WRONG! “Phthalates” (i.e. esters of ortho-phthalic acid) are NOT components of #1 PET (polyethylene terephthalate). The words do share some letters, but that does not mean that they are the same. Esters (and polyesters) of terephthalic acid are NOT endocrine disruptors.

    Perhaps Peggy should take a chemistry course or two instead of making up “facts” or passing on misinformation she heard somewhere…

    • Sally is right: the phthalates that mimic hormones (i.e. esters of ortho-phthalic acid) are not used in the manufacture of polyethylene terephthalate (PET #1 plastic), and yet, a number of studies have found that chemicals can leach from PET, among them the endocrine-disrupting phthalate, DEHP.

      Please read Dr. Leonard Sax’s article for the journal Environmental Health Perspectives, entitled “Polyethylene Terephalate May Yield Endocrine Disruptors.” The executive director of PETRA (the PET Resin Association) contested some points in the article, and Dr. Sax then published a response to the criticisms. We recommend reading the article and subsequent exchange to better understand the concerns.

      Leaching of antimony (a heavy metal) and bromine compounds like PBDE (fire-retardants) from PET into bottled water have also been measured.

      The purpose of our post was to make folks aware that endocrine-disrupting chemicals that incidentally get into our food or drink through packaging have until relatively recently been considered insignificant and harmless. But the science on this is rapidly changing, with many researchers believing that the FDA is far behind in its testing methods for the safety of these chemicals. PET is not completely inert; what we are learning is that any endocrine-disrupting chemicals that leach from plastics into food and beverages may have effects on human and environmental health.

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