The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has chosen not to ban chemicals from food packaging that have been linked to serious health impacts including breast cancer, diabetes, asthma and brain development in children.
The FDA’s decision, announced Thursday, came in response to two petitions sent by environmental and public health groups in 2016 asking the agency to ban phthalates from use in food packaging and food production equipment.
“FDA’s decision recklessly green-lights ongoing contamination of our food with phthalates, putting another generation of children at risk of life-altering harm to their brain development and exacerbating health inequities experienced by Black and Latina women,” Earthjustice attorney Katherine O’Brien said in a statement.
Earthjustice was one of the groups behind the petitions, alongside Environmental Defense Fund, Center for Environmental Health, Center for Food Safety, Center for Science in the Public Interest, Clean Water Action, Consumer Federation of America, Improving Kids’ Environment, Learning Disabilities Association of America, Breast Cancer Prevention Partners and Natural Resources Defense Council. The groups are concerned about phthalates because they are endocrine-disrupting chemicals that have been linked to a variety of health impacts including birth defects, infertility, miscarriage, breast cancer, diabetes, and asthma. Studies have shown that they can leach from packaging into food and drink. They can also transfer to a pregnant woman’s fetus via her blood, according to the Environmental Working Group. Childhood exposure is especially dangerous because phthalates have been associated with impaired brain development and behavioral disorders. Indeed, Congress decided that many of these chemicals were too dangerous for children’s toys more than 10 years ago, Earthjustice pointed out.
There is also an environmental justice component to the problem: people of color and low-income people are more likely to face health impacts because of phthalate exposure. This may be because marginalized communities are more likely to consume fast food, according to The Hill.
“For too long, the FDA has largely remained on the sidelines as concerns have mounted over phthalates in food, exposing all of us to unnecessary risk, especially infants, young children, and Black and Latina women,” Dr. Peter G. Lurie, president of Center for Science in the Public Interest, said in a statement. “With today’s decision, the FDA is signaling its intent to remain planted on the sidelines, prolonging an already protracted and profound environmental injustice. I fear it’s a decision the agency will come to regret as we learn even more about the adverse health impacts of these discredited chemicals on vulnerable members of our society.”
In the two petitions, The Hill reported, environmental groups had asked the FDA to:
- Ban a total of 28 phthalates from food contact.
- Ban certain phthalates from food contact and rescind authorization for others.
At the same time, the FDA also accepted a 2018 petition from industry group Flexible Vinyl Alliance to ban 25 phthalates that manufacturers no longer use. In its decision, the FDA said that the environmental groups had not demonstrated that the chemicals they wanted banned were unsafe. At the same time, the FDA did request more information about the safety of phthalates still in use.
“The purpose of this request is to provide FDA with all sources of relevant information to support our review of the current use levels and safe use of these ortho-phthalates in food contact applications,” the agency wrote.
O’Brien slammed the agency for dragging its feet on the issue.
“FDA’s announcement that it will now start reviewing new data on phthalate safety — six years after advocates sounded the alarm — is outrageous and seeks to sidestep FDA’s legal duty to address the current science in proceedings on the existing petitions,” she said in a statement.
The FDA’s response to the petitions was already long delayed. The agency is supposed to respond to petitions within 180 days, but the environmental groups had to sue in December of 2021 to force an answer.
“We submitted these petitions in 2016. The law required a decision several years ago. FDA’s failure to act until they were sued is consistent with its broader failings laid bare by Politico last month,” Tom Neltner, senior director of safer chemicals for the Environmental Defense Fund, said in a statement emailed to EcoWatch. “Despite the extra time, FDA has continued to ignore the widespread contamination of food by ortho-phthalates and related chemicals in our food and the cumulative effect these chemicals have on children’s health. It’s outrageous that FDA decided chemicals banned from children’s toys should remain in the food we eat. Families deserve better from FDA.”