Plastics, Food Additives and Chemicals Affect Our Children 

Hylton I Lightman, MD, DCH (SA), FAAP

In the 1967 classic film “The Graduate,” the aimless, recent college graduate Benjamin Braddock (played by the inimitable Dustin Hoffman) is advised by a friend his parents to pursue a career in plastics.  Plastics are, according to the friend, the future.

Fifty years later, the debate rages whether plastics is a harmless or harmful thing for the human body.  Plastics are certainly ubiquitous.  I bet you grabbed a Tupperware or some other plastic container to store the leftover chicken from Shabbos or the lasagna from last night’s dinner.  Most likely, there’s a Poland Spring sports cap water bottle in your hand or a plastic cup of java on your desk.

I’m leaving the environmental issues to the environmentalists and others whose knowledge far exceeds mine.  Rather, this is about plastics and the human body.

Plastic containers release small chemicals into stored foods and liquids. Research shows this chemical migration is most likely unavoidable.  While the amounts are small, there’s debate about what amount are harmful and when we should be concerned.

Here’s the rundown on some of the more widely used chemicals:

Bisphenol A (BPA), a chemical regularly used to harden clear plastic bottles and food containers including baby bottles, and to line metal cans, can migrate from these objects into the liquid and then enter a person’s blood stream.  BPA can act like estrogen in the body and potentially change the timing of puberty, decrease fertility, increase body fat, and affect the nervous and immune systems. Also, increased BPA levels in the urine are associated with prostate cancer.

BPA is now banned in baby cups and sippy cups. Canada was the first country to do so in 2008.

The flexible plastic and vinyl tubes used in industrial food production contain Phthalates in order to make the product flexible yet harder to break.  This chemical may affect male genital development, increase childhood obesity and contribute to cardiovascular disease.  In 2017, the Consumer Product Safety Commission thankfully banned the use of some phthalates in child-care products such as teething rings.

Yet when food is wrapped in BPA, phthalates may leak into the foods, especially if it’s in contact with fatty foods like red meat or cheese.

Perfluoroalkyl chemicals (PFCs) are used in grease-proof paper and cardboard packaging.  Research has shown they may reduce immunity, birth weight and fertility.  Also, PFCs may affect the thyroid system, which is the key to digestion, muscle control, brain development and bone strength.  Similarly, Perchlorate, which is added to some dry food packaging to control static electricity, is known to disrupt thyroid function and early life brain development and growth.

Let’s make things more complicated by discussing food additives. 

According to a statement issued last week by the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), some currently allowed chemicals are best avoided, especially for children.  This statement is based on growing evidence that some chemicals found in food colorings, preservatives and packaging materials may harm children’s health.  This same AAP statement calls for reforms to the U.S. food additive regulatory process.

Like plastics, the studies backing up the AAP statement suggest that some food additives can interfere with a child’s hormones, growth and development.  Some may also increase the risk of obesity.

Presently, the United States allows the use of more than 10,000 additives to preserve, package or modify the taste, appearance, texture or nutrients in foods.  Interestingly, many were grandfathered in for approval in the 1950s – before longitudinal studies were conducted.  Roughly 1,000 additives are used under “Generally recognized as Safe” designation process that does not require U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approval.

According to Dr. Leonardo Trasande, MD, MPP, FAAP, a member of the AAP’s Council on Environmental Health and lead author of the policy statement, “There are critical weaknesses in the current food additives regulatory process…(Not enough has been done to) ensure all chemicals added to foods are safe enough to be part of a family’s diet.”  Dr. Trasande continues, “As pediatricians, we’re especially concerned about significant gaps in data about the health effects of many of these chemicals on infants and children.”  In this recent New York Times article, discussion by other medical and advocacy groups that have expressed concern about the growing body of scientific evidence indicating that certain chemicals that enter foods may interfere with the body’s natural hormones in ways that may affect long-term growth and development.

One group of concern is the artificial food colors, which are common in children’s products, may be associated with worsened attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) symptoms.  Some studies have shown \a significant number of children who cut synthetic food colorings from their diets show decreased ADHD symptoms.

Another are is nitrates/nitrites.  These are used to preserve food and to enhance color, especially in cured and processed meats.  These chemicals can interfere with the thyroid hormone production and the blood’s ability to deliver oxygen to the body.  They have also been linked with gastrointestinal and nervous system cancer.

Pediatricians are concerned about the potentially harmful effects of food additives.  Children are more sensitive to chemical exposures because they eat and drink more, relative to body weight, than adults do, and are still growing and developing.

“Chemicals that affect the endocrine system, for example, can have lasting effects since hormones coordinate complex functions throughout the body,” Dr. Trasande explains.  “Even small disruptions at key moments during development can have lifelong consequences.”

What are Mom and Dad supposed to do with this information? 

Here are some simple steps you can take the limit your family’s exposure to the chemicals of greatest concern:

  • Eat fresh or frozen fruits and vegetables. They are delicious and G-d’s gift to us
  • Eat fewer processed meats, especially during pregnancy
  • Avoid microwaving food and beverages in plastic containers since heat can cause BPA and phthalates to look into food. Also, try to avoid putting plastics into the dishwasher
  • In place of plastic, use glass or stainless steel
  • Avoid plastics with recycling codes 3 (phthalates), 6 (styrene) and & 7 (bisphenols) unless they are labeled as “bio-based” or green-ware”
  • Store in safe bio-based or green-ware plastics, however DO NOT microwave in any plastics – put in glass or safe pottery plate to put in microwave
  • Wash hand thoroughly before and after touching food. Clean all fruits and vegetables that cannot be peeled
  • Eating takeout? Remove food from the takeout containers and store them in your own BPA-free or polycarbonate-free containers

Regardless off the type of container they come in, don’t leave your leftovers on the counter too long.  Leaving food out at an unsafe temperature is one of the main reasons of foodborne illness.  Cooked food should never be left a room temperature for more than an hour or two because it will quickly grow bacteria.

If you have questions, please speak with your pediatrician.

TFC Patient Families can talk to providers on well visits and send messages anytime 24/7/365 on the TFC Patient Portal.

As always, daven


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