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Beyond BPAs: Other Food Packaging Chemicals To Look Out For

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Photo:streetfly_jz/Flickr/Creative Commons License

Watch how researchers are working to make agricultural communities safer for children and families in this four-minute California Matters with Mark Bittman video.

There's a false sense of safety that comes with knowing just a little bit of information. For instance, if you've kept yourself somewhat informed, you know that BPA-laced food packaging is to be avoided. So, maybe you scan the shelves, notice a can with the "BPA-Free" label, pop it into your cart, and move on to the nice item on your list. But while "BPA-Free" is certainly worth paying attention to, that's not all that needs to be watched out for.

In fact, it's just the beginning.

According to a study published last July, food packaging in the U.S. contains 154 chemicals that are deemed to be dangerous. Yet, they're all still perfectly legal. A fascinating look over at Ensia.com goes through the scary state of affairs between what's allowed and what we know:

"Food packaging chemicals are not disclosed, and in many cases we don't have toxicology or exposure data," explains Maricel Maffini, an independent scientist and consultant who specializes in food additives research.

So, which do you need to be aware of? Let's take a brief stroll through the world of iffy food containers, shall we.

Polystyrene

This is better known as styrofoam, which is ubiquitous in its usage in coffee cups, egg cartons, salad containers, and insulating restaurant leftovers. It's already looked down upon from an environmental standpoint -- they can technically be recycled, but very few recycling programs do so because profits are based on weight, and styrofoam has none -- but how are they from a human health standpoint? Not that great.

Studies have shown that being constantly exposed to styrofoam vapors leads to all sorts of health problem, but that more concerns those working constantly near the product. The general consuming public cares about how styrofoam leaches onto food, and it certainly does, especially when in a heated environment. Say, coffee and insulation for those hot leftovers. Basically, just don't use styrofoam.

Formaldehyde

Formaldehyde is best known as the chemical used to embalm biological specimens, but it's also used to bind food packaging. It's also, according to the National Cancer Institute, a known carcinogen that can lead to nasopharyngeal cancer and leukemia. That said, most of that worry concerns inhaling large amounts of it, say, if you were working in a laboratory. Some scientists believe the worry is overblown when it comes to ingestion, seeing as it is a naturally-forming substance in many foods. Says one scientist:

To consume as much formaldehyde as is present in a 100-gram apple, you would need to drink at least 20 litres of mineral water that had been stored in PET bottles.

Tributyltin

Known as TBT, this organotin has been used for decades as an "anti-fouling" agent for paint on the hulls of boats. Unfortunately, it was only relatively recently that TBT was found to have toxic leaching properties. (The latest: A study from 2013 shows that it causes obesity in three subsequent generations of mice.) The most common use of TBT on food packaging is on inks.

Triclosan

Triclosan is another synthetic chemical, this one usually used because of its anti-bacterial properties. (This is why it's found in soaps and body wash products.) Unfortunately, it may do more harm than good, seeing as it has been linked to breast cancer and poor fetal development in male children. As far as food packaging goes, it's generally used as an anti-microbial layer in meat, fish, and poultry, and it's rarely listed on the packaging, so it's tough to look out for. But, here's a list of products that contain triclosan to help out.

Phthalates

Phthalates are kind of the new BPA, in that they're plastic, all over the place, and proven to not be so good for you. Among the risks associated with them are the blocking of male hormones, interfering with genitalia development, and sluggish sperm. Unfortunately, they're labeled under a full litany of confusing abbreviations that make it difficult to stay away from. Some of the common chemical abbreviations that you should look out for in your food packaging -- and other products as well, including carpeting and shower curtains -- include DBP, DEP, DEHP, BzBP, and DMP.

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