04/17/2012 - In a study published last year in the journal Environmental Health Perspectives, researchers put five San Francisco families on a three-day diet of food that hadn't been in contact with plastic. When they compared urine samples before and after the diet, the scientists were stunned to see what a difference a few days could make: The participants' levels of bisphenol A (BPA), which is used to harden polycarbonate plastic, plunged - by two-thirds, on average - while those of the phthalate DEHP, which imparts flexibility to plastics, dropped by more than half.
The findings seemed to confirm what many experts suspected: Plastic food packaging is a major source of these potentially harmful chemicals, which most Americans harbor in their bodies. Other studies have shown phthalates (pronounced THAL-ates) passing into food from processing equipment and food-prep gloves, gaskets and seals on non-plastic containers, inks used on labels - which can permeate packaging - and even the plastic film used in agriculture.
The government has long known that tiny amounts of chemicals used to make plastics can sometimes migrate into food. The Food and Drug Administration regulates these migrants as "indirect food additives" and has approved more than 3,000 such chemicals for use in food-contact applications since 1958.
According to Jane Muncke, a Swiss researcher who has reviewed decades' worth of literature on chemicals used in packaging, at least 50 compounds with known or suspected endocrine-disrupting activity have been approved as food-contact materials.
"Some of those chemicals were approved back in the 1960s, and I think we've learned a few things about health since then," says Thomas Neltner, director of a Pew Charitable Trusts project that examines how the FDA regulates food additives. "Unless someone in the FDA goes back and looks at those decisions in light of the scientific developments in the past 30 years, it's pretty hard to say what is and isn't safe in the food supply."
Read the full article, If Food is in Plastic, What's in the Food?, on the Washington Post's website.