There’s growing evidence that common industrial chemicals in our food can harm children’s health. Here’s what parents need to know.

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How safe is food that’s prepared in factories? Getty Images

Alarmed by growing evidence that common industrial chemicals in food can harm a child’s health, the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) is asking for an overhaul of the regulatory system.

“We’re all exposed to these chemicals every day,” Dr. Sheela Sathyanarayana, a pediatrician and co-author of the AAP statement, told Healthline.

Beyond the evidence that industrial chemicals may promote obesity and cancer — to list just two health issues the group highlighted — the AAP pointed to a lack of research.

In a review of nearly 4,000 industrial chemicals in food, 64 percent had no research showing they were safe for people to eat or drink, the group reported.

“We are exposing our population to chemicals where we just don’t know the effect,” said Sathyanarayana, who is also an Associate Professor at the University of Washington.

Currently, risky chemicals may get into food under a Food and Drug Administration (FDA) rule that allows manufacturers to judge the safety of chemicals, without oversight from the agency.

Additionally, other common chemicals that may be unsafe won FDA approval decades ago with out-of-date testing methods.

The lack of regulation applies both to chemicals added directly to food and those that seep into food from plastic, glues, dyes, paper, cardboard, and different types of coatings used for processing and packaging.

Because of the risks from plastic, for example, Laura MacCleery, Policy Director at the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) packs sandwiches in reusable cloth bags rather than plastic wrap or baggies, and her 8-year-old daughter has a metal lunch box.

Fast food is especially dangerous because chemicals can enter food through industrial equipment. Phthalates, used to make plastics more flexible, enter food through conveyor belts and gloves as well as packaging.

In 2016, ten nonprofits, which included CSPI and the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), petitioned the FDA to rescind approval of 30 currently approved phthalates, and bar the use of 8 of them.

“We expect a decision in October,” petitioner Maricel Maffini, PhD, a biologist and consultant on food additives, told Healthline.

According to a study reported in June, people who eat cheeseburgers that are not made at home are getting big hits of phthalates.

The same study concluded that teens who ate a lot of fast food and other foods purchased outside the home had 55 percent higher levels of phthalates in their urine than those who only consumed homemade food.

Also, DEHP (Di-Ethylhexyl Phthalate), one of the chemicals the group wants banned, has long been seen in surface layers of fatty foods like butter, cheese, and prepared meat packaged in products containing vinyl.

Studies have linked DEHP to diabetes in adult women as well.

In a 2013 study, researchers concluded that exposure to DHEP can up the risk of allergies in children. In 2016, another study concluded that it can affect child behavior.

Phthalates may also affect the growth of male genitals and promote heart disease.

DiNP (Di-Isononyl Phthalate), also on the list of requested bans, has become more common as a substitute. DiNP is less well-researched than DEHP, but it shows similar toxicological effects on lab animals, and it shows up in bigger quantities in the urine of those who eat more fast food.

Around the world, regulators have begun to put limits on exposure to these plastic softeners. Japan banned the use of vinyl gloves for preparing food because the gloves often contain DHEP or DiNP. The European Union is pushing manufacturers to find alternatives. The United States now bans phthalates in toys.

Avoiding food exposed to plastic won’t protect you entirely, since phthalates also show up in soaps and cosmetics among other items. You’d need to steer clear of all industrial products.

What about plastic wrap and containers you use at home? Plastic wrap in the United States contains a “plasticizer” called DEHA that is not a phthalate but is chemically similar to DEHP.

Plastic containers may contain bisphenols — generally bisphenol A (BPA), which is used to make very hard, shatterproof plastic. BPA also shows up in the lining of canned foods and beverages.

In 1963, the FDA approved BPA in a list of hundreds of chemicals to be used in can coatings. However, Maffini points out, “they most likely had limited or no toxicology data” at that time.

Today, we know bisphenols can act like estrogen, possibly changing when children go into puberty and promoting obesity. BPA is now banned in baby bottles and sippy cups.

The FDA and an academic group are testing the effect of BPA on animals exposed as fetuses. A report is expected by 2019. Early evidence suggests that rats exposed within pregnant mothers develop breast tumors later.

African-Americans and people with lower incomes seem to consume more BPAs, and are also more likely than other groups to suffer from obesity. The APA suggests that the extra exposure to BPA and other obesity-promoting chemicals may be partly to blame.

When a plastic container is marked “microwave-safe” you can put it into the microwave without worrying that it will melt. But that doesn’t mean it’s safe for your health: Heat can make BPA and phthalates leak into food.

Plastic items stamped with a recycling code 3 may indicate it contains phthalates, a 6 indicates another dangerous chemical, styrene, and 7 indicates bisphenols.

The nonprofit coalition scored a success with a petition against perfluoroalkyl chemicals (PFCs). These were used in grease-proof paper and cardboard food packaging until the FDA banned them in 2016. “PFCs can accumulate in the body for years,” Maffini said, where they may suppress immunity, promote obesity, and disrupt the endocrine system.

“The FDA took a year, and in the end, they agreed with us,” Maffini said. “We had data on some of them. Others there wasn’t any data. We said that this is a class and the information on some of them is concerning enough that we will apply it to all members.”

Last year, the agency disagreed with the group’s petition about perchlorate, which is added to some dry food packaging to control static electricity. The group challenged the decision, and the issue remains unsettled.

“The FDA assumed that the exposure would be so small it won’t be a problem,” Maffini explained. But how much is safe? “Perchlorate is an endocrine disruptor. The mother’s thyroid hormone is fundamental for development of fetus brain. If you have low thyroid the child’s brain will not develop as it should. You need iodine to make thyroid and perchlorate competes with the iodine,” Maffini said.

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Added colors to food may not be as safe as you think. Getty Images

In 2015, the group asked the FDA to ban seven artificial flavors common in candy, ice cream, commercial baked goods, and beverages. The agency approved them in the 1970s and 1980s, but since then, the HHS has linked them to cancer.

However, the FDA has yet to rule, and the petitioners sued the agency for the delay this year.

Synthetic food colors, common in children’s food products, have been linked to more severe attention problems, with some research showing that children who cut those colorings from their diets improved.

“There are no food dyes in my home,” MacCleery said. “My daughter knows that she can’t eat a lot of the candy that comes through kids’ lives. She’s on board with it. If she has a candy, she’ll tell me.”

Additionally, nitrates and nitrites — food preservatives that are more commonly used in cured and processed meats — may interfere with thyroid hormone production and the blood’s ability to deliver oxygen in the body. Nitrates and nitrites also have been linked with gastrointestinal and nervous system cancers.

There are no automatic triggers to review previously approved chemicals, even when new evidence comes in, critics point out. The AAP and other groups are currently calling for retesting.

In 2016, the FDA decided to uphold its policy allowing companies to evaluate additives on their own, winning the designation “Generally Recognized as Safe (GRAS).”

But groups like the Center for Science in the Public Interest are fighting it in court. “We argued that the GRAS… rule allows companies to undermine FDA’s authority,” MacCleery told Healthline. “I think companies should pay user fees into a system where you have a third-party institution performing the safety review with modern standards, and produce a report for the FDA to review. It would be more independent than the drug process.”

“The food industry would be the main beneficiary of a system where consumers feel confident in the ingredients,” she said, adding, “I’m currently working on a project that invites the food industry to the table to design a new system.”

The AAP advises parents to take these steps:

  • Buy fresh or frozen fruits and vegetables.
  • Stay away from processed meats — especially during pregnancy.
  • Avoid plastics unless they’re labeled “biobased” or “greenware.”
  • Don’t microwave food or beverages (including infant formula and pumped human milk) in plastic containers. Also, avoid putting plastics in the dishwasher. Instead, use glass containers.
  • Wash hands thoroughly before and after touching food, and clean all fruits and vegetables that cannot be peeled.