March 22, 2013
Hormone-disrupting chemicals are so widely dispersed throughout the environment that even avoiding all plastics and other food containers made with BPA and similar chemicals may not be enough to protect you, according to a study conducted by researchers from the University of Washington, Seattle Children’s Research Institute, BC Children’s Hospital, Simon Fraser University and published in the Nature Journal of Exposure Science and Environmental Epidemiology.
“Current information we give families may not be enough to reduce exposures,” lead author Sheela Sathyanarayana said.
The study focused on bisphenol A (BPA) and phthalates, both of which are known to act as hormone (endocrine) disruptors. BPA, which is used in hard plastics, resins lining food cans, and thermal paper receipts, has been linked to a wide variety of health problems including reproductive and neurological defects, cancer, obesity and diabetes. Phthalates, which are used to soften plastics and as cosmetic ingredients, have been linked to reproductive defects in males.
Concern over the health effects of these ubiquitous chemicals has led many manufacturers to plaster their products with “BPA-free” or “phthalate-free” labels. But the new study suggests that these measures may not go far enough.
Children most vulnerable
The study was conducted on 10 families, five of which were assigned to eat all their meals from a catered diet provided by the researchers. This diet was made completely from fresh, local, organic food, and had not been stored, cooked or prepared in plastic containers at any step of the process. For comparison, another five families were given handouts from the Pediatric Environmental Health Specialty Units on how to reduce their exposure to phthalates and BPA.
The researchers expected that chemical levels would be lowest in the catered group, because none of their food had come into contact with plastic. On the contrary; however, the catered group not only had higher levels than the handout group, their phthalate levels were 100 times higher than those found in the general population. Concentrations were highest in children.
“We were extremely surprised to see these results,” Sathyanarayana said. “We expected the concentrations to decrease significantly for the kids and parents in the catered diet group.”
Searching for an explanation, the researchers tested phthalate levels in the foods used to make the catered meals, and found widespread phthalate contamination. Dairy products, for example, had phthalate concentrations of more than 440 nanograms/gram, while ground cinnamon and cayenne pepper had levels higher than 700 ng/g, and ground coriander had concentrations as high as 21,400 ng/g.
Based on their findings, the researchers estimated that the average three to six-year-old consuming the catered diet was exposed to 183 milligrams per kilogram of their body weight of phthalates each day, in comparison with the government recommended maximum of 20 mg/kg.
“It’s difficult to control your exposure to these chemicals, even when you try,” said Sathyanarayana said.
“Families can focus on buying fresh fruits and vegetables, foods that are not canned and are low in fat, but it may take new federal regulations to reduce exposures to these chemicals.”