Phthalates and BPA are found in a variety of other materials, including construction and automobiles, medical devices, perfumes and clothing.
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration approved phthalates for use in food packaging back in the 1960s, and has not reevaluated their safety since then, said Dr. Sarah Janssen, a senior scientist in the Health and Environment program of the Natural Resources Defense Council, an environmental action group.
Although the FDA has been reviewing the safety of BPA, its evaluation has depended heavily on studies funded by the chemical industry, Janssen said.
"The question is, 'Are these chemicals safe?' and I would argue that they are not," said Janssen, who has conducted research testing phthalate levels in foods.
Phthalates and BPA are known as "hormone disruptors" that can interfere with testosterone production and mimic estrogen, respectively.
Research suggests that phthalates can interfere with reproductive development in males, reduce male fertility and increase the risk of asthma in children. BPA has been linked to hyperactivity and aggression in children exposed as fetuses, and heart disease and diabetes in adults.
The current study was published Feb. 27 in the Journal of Exposure Science and Environmental Epidemiology.
Sathyanarayana and her colleagues included five families with 10 adults and 11 children in the catered-diet group, and five families with nine adults and 10 children in the group that got a written handout.
Notably, children in the diet-intervention group had higher levels of the chemicals than the adults. "Children are not only vulnerable because of their increased body burden [due to their smaller bodies] but also because they are probably taking in a lot more dairy," Sathyanarayana explained.
Although the levels of phthalates and BPA in the group that received a handout did not change, they also did not drop, as the researchers had hoped. Sathyanarayana and her colleagues are currently working on creating educational materials that are more user-friendly with videos on how to grocery shop and prepare foods.
Even though "there's likely contamination higher up in the food chain, in growing and processing the food, there are still lots of things you can do to reduce your exposure," Sathyanarayana said. These steps include avoiding plastics that could contain phthalates and BPA, storing food in glass containers and not heating foods in plastic containers.
"The same advice that your doctor gives you to eat a low-fat diet, less processed foods and more fruits and vegetables will probably also reduce your consumption of phthalates," Janssen said.
You can find out more about phthalates, BPA and other chemicals at the Natural Resources Defense Council Chemical Index.
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