Australasian Science: Australia's authority on science since 1938

Are Chemicals in Food Packaging a Health Risk?

By Australian Science Media Centre

Synthetic chemicals used in the packaging, storage and processing of foods might be harmful to human health because most of these substances are not inert and can leach into the foods we eat.

While the topic of this paper is relatively interesting the title is needlessly alarmist, especially as the authors don’t present any actual data (either their own or from other studies) to back up their statements... There are a lot of possibilities and maybes in this article and while there may be a case for more research into some of the chemicals mentioned, particularly the endocrine disruptors, this article does not make it very well.

The overwhelming weight of scientific opinion (including that from Food Standards Australia and New Zealand) is that there is no health or safety issue from these chemicals at the levels people are exposed to. More research is always welcome from a scientist’s point of view but I would hazard a guess that the high levels of fat, sugar and salt in a lot of today’s processed food are more of a health concern than any migration of chemicals from the packaging.

Dr Oliver Jones is a Lecturer in Analytical Chemistry and Co-director of the RMIT Centre for Environmental Sustainability and Remediation (EnSuRe).

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Although the number of studies linking chemical contamination of foodstuffs to human health problems is increasing, we actually know very little about how chemicals affect bodily functions or promote disease, or at what life stage(s) we are susceptible. In part, this is due to the grave inadequacy of studies into chemical safety, but there are other considerations. Toxicology studies generally do not reflect typical human exposure, which is particularly concerning because some chemicals have been found to be more toxic at lower concentrations. Furthermore, these methods cannot replicate a lifetime of exposure, so the potential effects from decades-worth of chemical exposure (or accumulation) cannot be modelled.

The push by Muncke and co-authors to invest in epidemiological studies is important in helping to address these issues, yet caveats remain so other approaches are still needed. As more information is generated, we must also be prepared to consider whether the risks posed by chemicals identified as unsafe are outweighed by the substantial benefits we derive from their use.

Dr Catherine Itman is a research fellow at the University of Newcastle’s Priority Research Centres for Reproductive Biology and Chemical Biology.

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It is very hard to take seriously an article on the risks of packaging that makes this statement:

Formaldehyde, another known carcinogen, is widely present at low levels in plastic bottles made of polyethylene terephthalate... Considering how widely beverages are consumed from polyethylene terephthalate soda bottles, this may amount to a significant, yet unrecognized, exposure of the population.

Formaldehyde is also present in many foods naturally. To consume as much formaldehyde as is present in a 100 gram apple you would need to drink at least 20 litres of mineral water that had been stored in PET bottles. Obviously the concern about formaldehyde from food packaging is significantly overrated, unless we are willing to place “potential cancer hazard” stickers on fresh fruit and vegetables.

While we should not be dismissive of the potential for undesirable materials in packaging to migrate into food, the risks are exceptionally small. As demonstrated by the formaldehyde mistake in this paper, concentrating on very low levels of migrating materials without paying attention to the concentrations in regard to physiology, or other health risks, will create unwarranted concern. Analysis of compounds of concern in foods available in Australia show that these compounds are either mostly undetectable or at such low levels to be of no reasonable risk.

Epidemiology has many challenges, but epidemiology uninformed by biology risks exaggerating hazards and causing unwarranted concern.

Dr Ian Musgrave is a Senior Lecturer in Pharmacology at the University of Adelaide.

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Chemicals are included in food packaging as plasticisers, anti-oxidants and so on, and they perform well in these functions. Their toxicology is generally well-understood but long-term impacts of low-level exposure are not well documented, especially where fuzzy concepts like “development” are concerned. The epidemiological and clinical studies that the authors recommend are unlikely to be carried out, mainly because they would cost too much. There is a another way, however. Manufacturers are already feeling the pressure and changing to safer alternatives even before they are faced with definitive research results. It’s good marketing practice to get in before regulation strikes. We have seen it in the case of bisphenol A and phthalates, which are already disappearing from some products. If it comes down to consumer pressure, it’s helpful to have articles like this one from reputable scientists.

Professor Ian Rae is Honorary Professorial Fellow at the University of Melbourne

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Yes! Materials in contact with food can present a toxicological risk. This has been acknowledged for some time. As always, the dose determines the poison. Independent of the migration of substances into foodstuffs over a lifetime of exposure, the metabolism and excretion – the retention – of the substance(s) is critical in describing the dose. It is proper to raise this issue but in the absence of proof of dose or outcome it is alarmist. The call for epidemiological studies is appropriate but will never prove causality for any of the multitude of compounds.

Professor Michael Moore is Vice-president of the Australasian College of Toxicology & Risk Assessment and Chair of Water Research Australia Ltd.

Food packaging and migration of food contact materials: will epidemiologists rise to the neotoxic challenge? Muncke, J. et al. Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health, doi:10.1136/jech-2013-202593