Plastic as Food Poisoning

It’s very difficult to eat or drink these days without ingesting plastic, which comes into contact with nearly all commercially sold foods. Cardboard milk containers and cans of peas are coated with plastic; it is sprayed on produce to preserve freshness and used to irrigate, mulch, wrap and transport fruits and vegetables.

Since the 1950s, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration has known that plastic “migrates” into the food and drinks it comes in contact with. In fact, until 2002 “food grade” plastic was classified by the FDA as an “indirect food additive.” And since the 1990s, when scientists worldwide began monitoring urinary concentrations of environmental chemicals, it’s been known that virtually all of us have chemicals in our blood and tissue that migrated from plastic food wrap, bags, packaging and bottles. 

As was covered in a Gazette Coop Environmental Committee Report last year, these chemicals are known endocrine disrupters that are linked to health risks ranging from diabetes to high blood pressure to infertility and more.

As attorney Lisa Kaas Boyle put it:
Plastic is food poisoning. The chemicals you are eating and drinking [from plastic] are changing you on a cellular level, altering your chromosomes in ways that can lead to infertility, obesity, and cancer. For women, estrogenic mimicking chemicals can cause breast cancer; for men, these chemicals cause prostrate cancer, reduced penis and testicle size and low testosterone. These threats are not hypothetical. They have been proven in the lab and demonstrated in real world studies.
Many items sold in the Coop – as elsewhere – come packaged in plastic. But, as the Natural Resources Defense Council notes, “[W]e really can’t shop our way out of the problem. It’s unfair to put all that responsibility on consumers. Change needs to happen at the policy level. We shouldn’t have to worry about whether what we buy is safe or not.”

The European Food Safety Authority has been reevaluating the safety of all chemical additives permitted in food sold in the European Union.  If enough consumers demand it, the United States will have to follow suit.

Meanwhile, for Coop members who want to reduce the amount of harmful chemicals they consume from plastic, and who want to protect their children from the harmful effects, here are some steps you can take:

Whenever possible, buy food stored in glass containers rather than plastic or metal. If you must buy a food item that comes in plastic, repackage it at home.
Some items – like ketchup for example – are available in both plastic and glass containers; ask the buyers at the Coop and anywhere else you shop to order food in glass containers wherever possible.
Throw out plastic bowls, storage containers, and utensils you have at home and replace them with glass, wood or metal items.
Whenever possible, wrap food in foil or wax paper, rather than plastic
Use paper or cloth bags for buying and storing produce, grains, flour, nuts and other items, rather than plastic.
Instead of disposal or reusable plastic water bottles, use unlined stainless steel or glass bottles.
Say “no thanks” to paper receipts. Thermal paper receipts, which are now common, contain a toxic plastic in a form that is easily absorbed.
Wash your hands frequently and always before you eat and make sure your kids do the same, (using soap without harmful anti-bacterial ingredients).

The Coop Environmental Committee has worked for almost two decades to reduce the presence of plastic in the coop. Committee educational campaigns convinced coop members to vote to end the use of plastic shopping bags and the sale of water in disposable plastic bottles. The committee is currently working toward ridding the coop of the hundreds of thousands of disposable plastic roll bags we use each year, and continues to educate our fellow members about shopping with less plastic.

Plastic has been an ongoing concern for the environmental committee because plastic products generally don’t biodegrade. They end up in landfills and oceans, where they pollute soil and water, harming wildlife and humans alike. Additional environmental downsides of plastic include its production, which pollutes the air, wastes huge quantities of water and relies on carbon-producing fossil fuels and many toxic chemicals. But even if none of these other problems with plastic existed, the threat to human health would be enough of a concern to rid our food stream of plastic. 

In the past year or so the failure of agencies like the FDA and the Environmental Protection Agency to test most of the chemicals humans are exposed to has been in the news. As public awareness of this huge problem grows, there will be openings to demand greater action on food safety, including the ubiquitous presence of plastic in our food. The Environmental Committee will follow related developments and keep Coop members informed when opportunities for advocacy arise.  The Coop also has other committees that look at issues related to food safety, like the GMO Labeling Committee and the International Trade Education Squad. All benefits of being a Coop member and reading The Gazette.