The American Academy of Pediatrics, a professional membership organization representing 67,000 doctors, has put the US Government and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) on blast for their lax regulation of chemicals added to food and food packaging. At the same time, they've advised the general public on how to avoid potential dangers while the agencies tasked with ensuring our safety are asleep at the wheel.
In a technical report and statement issued yesterday, a panel of medical experts representing the group highlighted the evidence, dating back 20 years and continuing to grow, that compounds such as bisphenol A (BPA), phthalates, perfluoroalkyl chemicals (PFCs) used in grease-proof paper, certain coloring agents, and preservatives can enter into the body and cause disease by disrupting crucial physiological pathways. Of particular concern, a number of agents are now suspected to alter endocrine signaling by mimicking or suppressing natural hormones. Children and infants, the authors warn, are especially susceptible to insidious long-term effects.
The International Federation of Gynecology and Obstetrics, the World Health Organization, the United Nations Environment Program, and the International Endocrine Society have previously issued statements of concern over additive chemicals and endocrine disruption. In June 2017, the European Chemicals Agency officially recognized BPA as a danger to human health.
Explaining why so many potentially toxic chemicals are still used in American products, the Academy researchers note that current US law allows chemicals to be used in consumables without the FDA vetting if they fall into the “Generally Recognized as Safe” (GRAS) designation. Of the approximate 1,000 GRAS compounds added to food and food packaging, the large majority were designated as such by either the company that manufactures them or a paid consultant.
Naturally, this dubious process screams of conflict of interest and lacks transparency. Government officials appear to be aware of the GRAS system’s shortcomings, yet no legislation has been enacted to fix them.
“[T]he GRAS process, although intended to be used in limited situations, has become the process by which virtually all new food additives enter the market. Consequently, neither the FDA nor the public have adequate notice or review,” the Academy statement notes. “The Government Accountability Office conducted an extensive review of the FDA GRAS program in 2010 and determined that the FDA is not able to ensure the safety of existing or new additives through this approval mechanism.”
But the real problem arises from the fact that the FDA has not been given the authority to perform safety research for chemicals that are already on the market.
“This issue is of great importance and concern for chemicals approved decades ago on the basis of limited and sometimes antiquated testing methods. For instance, some compounds, such as styrene and eugenol methyl ether, remain approved for use as flavoring agents, although they have been subsequently classified as reasonably anticipated to be human carcinogens by the US National Toxicology Program,” the authors continued.
A spokesperson for the American Chemistry Council (ACC) – the chemical industry’s trade association – insisted to The New York Times that most of the compounds flagged by the Academy are harmless at the levels consumers are exposed to them, but he did not back up his statement with any peer-reviewed research. Moreover, the ACC is infamous for using their powerful lobby to suppress negative findings and prevent increased regulation.
The American Academy of Pediatrics group concludes by calling on policymakers to assess the toxicity of suspect GRAS chemicals through objective studies, to overhaul the third-party designation system in favor of comprehensive and transparent safety testing, and to begin requiring labels on products if they contain chemicals with little or no toxicity data.
For concerned consumers, the physicians recommend avoiding canned food as the packaging is often lined with bisphenols, avoiding microwaving or dishwashing plastic containers, and familiarizing yourself with plastic types via recycling codes. Read their full advice here.