There Are Nearly 1,000 Chemicals in Our Food That Have Never Been Tested for Safety

There Are Nearly 1,000 Chemicals in Our Food That Have Never Been Tested for Safety

September 20, 2018

Why the FDA and the EPA aren't set up to protect us from contaminants in the food we eat.

By Kristin Lawless

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In July 2017, The New York Times ran a story titled The Chemicals in Your Mac and Cheese. Researchers, the article explained, had found plasticizers—known as phthalates—in the popular kids’ food. Fewer than two weeks later, the Timesreported that traces of the herbicide glyphosate, the main ingredient in Roundup, had been found in Ben & Jerry’s ice cream. Several people asked me: Should we be worried?

My answer: Yes, we should, but not just because researchers found plasticizers (which are chemicals that make plastics more durable) in our mac and cheese or herbicide in our ice cream. We should be worried because these kinds of environmental chemical contaminants are literally everywhere, in nearly all our foods.

We know they exist in these two foods because researchers specifically looked for them. Roughly 9,000 environmental chemicals on the market end up in our foods, including food additives, colorings, flavorings, pesticides, and food-packaging chemicals. Even though they are ever-present in our environment and our bodies, many are never thoroughly tested for safety—and some are never tested at all.

In dozens of interviews with scientists and researchers, I have identified major roadblocks to the fair and impartial regulation of environmental chemicals that we are all in direct contact with on a daily basis, especially those in our food.

The two main agencies responsible for regulating all the environmental chemicals in our food are the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), which oversees all food and food ingredients on the market—except meat, poultry, and certain processed egg products, which are overseen by the US Department of Agriculture—and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), which regulates pesticides, herbicides, insecticides, and fungicides used in food production. But the laws governing the agencies have myriad problems, as do the agencies themselves.

Let’s take a look at a few of the most egregious flaws in the system.

Food manufacturers are responsible for their own safety testing (and you can imagine how that turns out)

One of the fundamental flaws in the design of the regulatory system is that the manufacturers of the pesticides, emulsifiers, and plasticizers that are added to our food supply, food products, and food packaging provide their own data conducted by scientists that they hire to perform safety testing on their products.

In the case of pesticides, an EPA spokesperson told me that this practice is intended to save taxpayers money on expensive research and scientific studies. “Congress placed this obligation on the pesticide registrant rather than requiring taxpayers [to] fund data development,” the representative told me.

Most people would assume that governmental agencies are doing independent testing to ensure the safety of our foods and other products in contact with our foods. But that is simply not the case. Although the EPA and FDA sometimes do review the internal findings, no independent body or group of scientists tries to replicate them.

“The…only entity testing the safety of the components is the company—and they have no incentive to show that their products are dangerous,” says Bruce Blumberg, a professor at the University of California, Irvine, who studies endocrine-disrupting chemicals. “It is a conflict of interest, and they are not protecting public health—that is the bottom line.”

Some of the chemicals tested at high doses actually show effects at very low doses

When we eat that mac and cheese, that Ben & Jerry’s ice cream, and probably hundreds of other foods, the FDA and EPA say that since we are only being exposed to “trace” amounts of phthalates or glyphosate, for example, these chemicals are harmless. This strikes many people as common sense—people often say, “If I’m only getting a little bit, it can’t hurt, right?”

But this thinking, by both regulators and eaters, is fundamentally flawed based on discoveries in the study of endocrine-disrupting chemicals (EDCs), which can act on the endocrine system by mimicking or blocking the action of natural hormones. (The endocrine system is a chemical messenger system consisting of hormones and glands that are central to nearly all our biological functions, from brain and sexual development to our metabolic systems.)

When it comes to EDCs, an abundance of scientific findings show that they are biologically active in extremely small amounts and, in fact, small amounts can have a major effect on cells and the body while larger doses may have no effect all. (Hormone receptors are down-regulated by hormones, which means that high doses can cause a complete down-regulation, or desensitization.)

A basic tenet of endocrinology is that the endocrine system is exquisitely sensitive to tiny amounts of hormones or hormone-like substances—whether they are hormones we produce inside our bodies or those we are exposed to in drugs or the environment. Yet manufacturers base most of their testing on toxicology, a field that often abides by the outdated edict that “the dose makes the poison,” or the idea that it is not the substance itself but rather the amount that matters.

Indeed, pharmacology (the study of how drugs work) and drug development are based on the understanding that all drugs have vastly different dose ranges, and the physiologic effects of each drug do not always depend on the dosage. That is, a tiny amount of a drug can have a powerful effect on our bodies. Think of the birth control pill: It can contain as little as twenty micrograms of estrogen yet prevent a woman from ovulating. (One microgram is one thousand times less than a milligram, the usual measure for vitamins.) Because many of the chemicals we are exposed to through our food supply are at low levels, acute or immediate effects are often not the problem; rather, long-term effects and effects passed down over generations are the main concerns.

According to a 2015 statement from the Endocrine Society, scientists and researchers have found “strong mechanistic, experimental, animal, and epidemiological evidence for endocrine disruption” and its role in obesity and diabetes, problems with female and male reproduction, hormone-sensitive cancers in women, prostate cancer, and impairment to thyroid function, neurodevelopment, and neuroendocrine systems.

Our food supply represents one of the biggest sources of EDC contamination, in the form of pesticides, herbicides, fungicides, and the chemicals in food packaging. But the regulatory agencies have been slow to adapt to any of these findings. “They do not test chemicals at the concentrations that people are being exposed to—period,” says R. Thomas Zoeller, a biology professor and researcher at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. They test chemicals in much higher concentrations, which, as mentioned above, simply don’t have the same effects as tiny dosages.

When I contacted the EPA for comment on the concern that very low doses of these chemicals can have an impact on human health (note that this is called “nonmonotonic dose response”) a spokesperson replied with this statement: "EPA continues to research a nonmonotonic dose response (NMDR) and ‘Low Dose’ issues. The agency is currently working with the National Academy of Sciences to better understand ‘Low Dose’ issues."

Maricel Maffini, a scientist and independent consultant who has authored several prominent papers about the problems at the FDA, says the agency’s internal problems stem from a generational divide among its scientists. “Many of their scientists are old-school, many of their scientists have told us to our faces that endocrine disruptors are not a thing, that low-dose effects are not a thing ... they forgot—even though some of them are pharmacologists, and so they are very familiar with the concept—[that] you have to find the sweet spot for the drug to work. But they don’t apply the same science when it comes to food additives,” she says. 

All the researchers I interviewed agreed that current evaluations conducted by regulatory agencies are faulty for another reason: The agencies are not considering "sensitive endpoints," or systems of the body that are affected by small amounts of hormones, such as the thyroid, reproductive, or neuroendocrine systems. Nor are they considering fetal development in the womb, especially brain and sexual development. Instead they tend to look at more crude effects on an organ—by, say, removing the thyroid and weighing it, but not looking at all the other systems of the body that the thyroid effects, like the brain.

Zoeller has been studying the effects of endocrine-disrupting chemicals on the thyroid for decades. He has looked at polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) and dioxins that are prevalent in our food supply and has shown that, because these chemicals are structurally similar to thyroid hormones, they are having profound effects on the thyroid—especially in the womb. The effects include lowered IQ, impaired brain development, issues linked to attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and autism, and visual and perceptual disturbances.

When I contacted the FDA to ask if the agency considers low-dose exposures and sensitive endpoints, press officer Megan McSeveney said that the key determination in a safety assessment of a substance in our food is “probable intake and the level at which adverse effects are observed in toxicological studies.”

Yet the parameters of toxicological studies—and the idea that ”the dose makes the poison,” as mentioned above—run counter to findings from independent scientists in the field of endocrine disruption. “For toxins, the more you’re exposed to, the greater the effect. [But] that is not true of hormones,” Frederick vom Saal, a University of Missouri professor of biological sciences who studies BPA, recently told Vox. “Hormones aren’t toxins; they’re regulatory molecules that operate at a trillionth of a gram level.”

There are nearly 1,000 chemicals that have never been tested at all

The other piece of legislation that essentially allows manufacturers to greenlight their own chemicals for use in our foods is what’s known as “generally recognized as safe,” or GRAS. This designation represents one of the biggest hurdles for adequate protection of the public’s health.

The provision was originally intended to give common food ingredients added to foods—such as salt, sugar, and vinegar—an exemption from testing and scrutiny before manufacturers could put them in our foods. But what actually happens is that chemical manufacturers use GRAS as a way to fast-track products to market without review for safety by the FDA.

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