Report Urges Lower Children’s Exposure to Toxic Chemicals
(Beyond Pesticides) The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) has issued new guidelines for measures to lower children’s exposures to chemicals in food and food packaging that are tied to health problems such as obesity, metabolic changes, decreased birth weight, and endocrine disrupting effects, including reduced fertility. Exposures to these chemicals–added to food during processing or in food packaging–are disproportionately high among minority and low-income populations, according to the report, especially given inadequate federal regulation and oversight.
The guidelines, issued in both a statement and technical report by the AAP entitled, Food Additives and Child Health, came after the group decided to review and highlight emerging child health concerns related to “the use of colorings, flavorings, and chemicals deliberately added to food during processing (direct food additives) as well as substances in food contact materials.” Food additives, in particular, have been documented to be linked to endocrine disruption and other adverse health effects. According to AAP, “regulation and oversight of many food additives is inadequate because of several key problems in the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act. Current requirements for a “generally recognized as safe” (GRAS) designation are insufficient to ensure the safety of food additives and do not contain sufficient protections against conflict of interest. Additionally, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) does not have adequate authority to acquire data on chemicals on the market or reassess their safety for human health.”
Infants and children are more vulnerable to chemical exposures, but data about the health effects of food additives on infants and children are limited or missing. AAP identifies as compounds of concern, bisphenols, which are used in the lining of metal cans; phthalates, used in adhesives and plasticizers; nonpersistent pesticides, which have been addressed in a previous AAP policy statement; perfluoroalkyl chemicals (PFCs), which are used in grease-proof paper and paperboard food packaging; and perchlorate, an antistatic agent used for packaging in contact with dry foods with surfaces that do not contain free fat or oil; nitrates and nitrites, and artificial food coloring.
For instance, bisphenol A (BPA) exposure in utero has been associated with adverse neurodevelopmental outcomes, and cross-sectional studies have associated BPA with decrements in fetal growth, childhood obesity. Certain phthalates are linked to adverse effects on male fetal genital development, and studies have shown PFCs to contribute to metabolic changes, decreased birth weight, and endocrine disrupting effects including reduced fertility. In 2012, AAP issued a statement of childhood exposures to pesticides recognizing that reducing pesticide exposures in foods may be significant for children. AAP also noted that choosing organic food, which has significantly lower toxic pesticide residues is also beneficial to larger environmental issues, as well as human health impacts like pollution and global climate change.
Specific recommendations to pediatricians and consumers include:
- Prioritize consumption of fresh or frozen fruits and vegetables when possible, and support that effort by developing a list of low-cost sources for fresh fruits and vegetables.
- Avoid processed meats, especially maternal consumption during pregnancy.
- Avoid microwaving food or beverages (including infant formula and pumped human milk) in plastic, if possible.
- Avoid placing plastics in the dishwasher.
- Use alternatives to plastic, such as glass or stainless steel, when possible.
- Look at the recycling code on the bottom of products to find the plastic type, and avoid plastics with recycling codes 3 (phthalates), 6 (styrene), and 7 (bisphenols) unless plastics are labeled as “biobased” or “greenware,” indicating that they are made from corn and do not contain bisphenols.
- Encourage hand-washing before handling foods and/or drinks, and wash all fruits and vegetables that cannot be peeled.
“The good news is there are safe and simple steps people can take right now to limit exposures, and they don’t have to break the bank,” said Leonardo Trasande, MD, the lead author of the statement and chief of the division of environmental pediatrics at New York University’s School of Medicine. “Avoiding canned food is a great way to reduce your bisphenol exposure in general, and avoiding packaged and processed food is a good way to avoid phthalates exposures,” Dr. Trasande said. He also suggested wrapping foods in wax paper in lieu of plastic wrap.
This far, higher urinary levels of these substances (e.g. BPA) have been inversely associated with family income. Given that obesity is well recognized to be more prevalent among low-income and minority children, disproportionate exposures to these obesogenic chemicals partially explain sociodemographic disparities in health, AAP explains. The group recommends that “substantial improvements” be made to regulate these substances including strengthening or replacing the “generally recognized as safe” (GRAS) determination process, updating the scientific foundation of the FDA’s safety assessment program, retesting all previously approved chemicals, and labeling direct additives with limited or no toxicity data.
Beyond Pesticides advocates in its program and through its Eating with a Conscience website choosing organic because of the environmental and health benefits to consumers, workers, and rural families. The Eating with a Conscience database, based on legal tolerances (or allowable residues on food commodities), describes a food production system that enables toxic pesticide use both domestically and internationally, and provides a look at the toxic chemicals allowed in the production of the food we eat and the environmental and public health effects resulting from their use. For more information on the benefits of organic agriculture, see Beyond Pesticides’ Organic Food program page.
All unattributed positions and opinions in this piece are those of Beyond Pesticides.