The old-school rules of dealing with food contamination seemed pretty straightforward: Cook meat until it reaches germ-killing temps and thoroughly clean any juice from raw meat from the countertop or cutting boards. Scientists on the cutting edge of food safety are identifying a whole new class of problems, though, including a new phenomenon—chemical contamination in food, including plastic chemicals inside of your favorite foods.
In a first-of-its-kind study, researchers from the University of Texas Health Science Center and the U.S. government tested a wide variety of foods for a broad range of phthalates, plastic chemicals used in everything from fragranced shampoos, detergents, cleaners, and lotions to pesticides, food packaging, medical tubing, and vinyl flooring and shower curtains.
Testing 72 different popular supermarket foods, including dairy, meats, condiments, drinks, and pizza, researchers found phthalate contamination in every food tested. (The products weren't organic.) They note, however, that levels were within the parameters of what the Environmental Protection Agency considers "safe."
The problem is, Americans are exposed to dozens of different chemicals at any given time, and doctors don't fully understand how those mixtures interact inside of us. Phthalates alone have been tied to male reproductive problems, obesity, early breast development in girls, and premature birth.
"Individually, no one finding would by itself cause concern, but the issue is we don't eat just the one type of phthalates," says senior study author Linda Birnbaum, PhD, director of the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences. "We're exposed to multiple phthalates, and we need to begin to understand how we look at the totality of exposure, not just one chemical at a time."
Researchers don't know where the contamination came from—this study just aimed to detect its presence. Birnbaum says she hopes other researchers will use the latest news as a "heads-up" study, using it to further investigate the problem of chemical contamination in food. Some theories about sources include the plastic tubing and containers used in manufacturing of processed foods, food wrappers, and perhaps even phthalates used in pesticide formulations sprayed on food crops.
Larger studies could help determine typical contamination levels, too. "The government regulations reduced the amount of dioxins in food and in the U.S. general population," explains study coauthor Arnold Schecter, MD, MPH, professor of environmental and occupational health at the University of Texas. "The same happened with lead in gasoline and paint. When we have more knowledge of which foods have higher levels of contamination and how it got there, we should be able to determine how to lower the amounts in food."
In February 2013, University of Washington researchers tested people eating strictly organic diets made and stored without the use of plastics. They found high levels of phthalates in those people, too, suggesting the chemical contamination could be widespread. That was just one small study and further research is needed.
To lower phthalate levels in your household, eat lower on the food chain, avoid vinyl products and flooring, use unscented cleaners and detergents, and visit Environmental Working Group's Skin Deep Cosmetics Database to find safer personal care products.