In the EU several phthalates are considered Substances of Very High Concern under REACH

Tests show plastic packaging can affect baby boy’s genitals before birth

By Jenny Eagle

- Last updated on GMT

Related tags Food packaging Pregnancy

plastic packaging, FPF, baby boy's genitals,
Certain types of chemicals called phthalates found in plastics may alter baby boys’ genitals before birth, according to a study in the Reproductive Health Journal.

The study explores the views of pregnant women and clinicians regarding discussion of exposure to phthalate plasticizers during pregnancy, subsequent to the 2011 Health Canada ban of certain phthalates at a concentration greater than 1000 mg/kg in baby toys. This occurred with no regulation of products to which pregnant women are exposed, such as food packaging and cosmetics.

'Cause for concern'


Lead author Shanna Swan, a reproductive health scientist at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York, found increasing research and media attention about the risks of phthalates in pregnancy creates concern for pregnant women in Canada, and has urged The Society of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists of Canada, the Canadian College of Family Physicians, and the Canadian Association of Midwives to include information on phthalate exposure in pregnancy in their patient information strategies.

‪Jane Muncke, managing director, Food Packaging Forum Foundation, told FoodProductionDailythe study and its findings are nothing new and Swan has done research on the demasculinizing effects of phthalates for the last 10 years and has been attacked heavily by the chemical industry for it. 

These effects caused by phthalates have been proven many times now in animal studies and several (but much smaller) epigenetic studies too​,” she said. 

There is definitely cause for concern here, and in the EU several phthalates are considered Substances of Very High Concern under REACH and shall be gradually phased out​.

Their use in food contact materials remains legal, albeit certain restrictions apply​.” 

Phthalate measurements


Muncke added what’s new about this study is that large sample size and phthalate measurements were made during the first trimester of pregnancy (11 weeks) when the genitals start forming. 

In previous (smaller) studies phthalate levels were measured in the third trimester when the genitals are already ‘made’.‪

The measurement they took, the ‘anogenital distance’ (AGD), is a ‘biomarker​’,” she added. 

AGD itself is not a disease, but researchers assume it can be used as an easy to measure indicator/biomarker that other reproductive problems in men exist, namely reduced sperm quality and quantity, reduced fertility, lower testicular volume, undescended testis, lower testosterone and testicular cancer/prostate cance​r. 

More work is needed to substantiate these associations/assumptions​. 

‪”The good news is phthalate levels in people are declining. The bad news is they're still around, and the present levels are having this effect on male babies, indicating the dose considered safe needs to be reconsidered.​” 

Migration studies from food packaging are not trivial

According to Muncke, sources of phthalates are manifold, and these chemicals can stick around in the environment for a while, so migration studies from food packaging are not trivial. 

Measuring phthalate levels in people is easier, because you can look for the body's breakdown products (metabolites) and you can be certain that you're measuring what was in a person​,” she said.

If you do migration studies you cannot measure metabolites and always have to have very good controls or blank samples to be sure you're not measuring environmental background levels. It's quite tricky​.” 

Muncke added a few studies have shown migration of phthalates from PET plastic bottles (for water, soft drinks, etc.). 

The PET industry claims it does not use phthalates in its products, but I think it's plausible they are present as by products - of course the levels are very low, but it could be one of several sources that then add up​,” she said. 

Other sources are printing inks, adhesives, plasticizers in PVC, but also cosmetics and from ‘environmental contamination’ plastic cable coatings, plastics for all purposes​.” 

Not as simple as avoiding plastic food packaging

Muncke said in 2011, a US dietary intervention study​ showed phthalate levels in people markedly dropped if they changed their diet from packaged to unpackaged foods prepared without plastic utensils. 

Another US study was not able to reproduce this finding, so it seems it may not be that simple as avoiding any plastic food packaging. 

“It's an epigenetic study so we need to bare in mind it's not ‘controlled’ like toxicological animal studies are,” Muncke added.

Swan interviewed a total of 23 pregnant women and 11 clinicians in Southwestern Ontario. Research ethics approval was obtained through the Western University’s Health Science Research Ethics Board (17406E).

 “Phthalates are compounds that are used to make plastics flexible in their final applications​,” she said.

They are used in floor tiles, clothes, medical supplies, toys, food packaging, and personal care products. These compounds have also been shown to leach out of various products, and are also present in appreciable amounts in our environment - mimic naturally occurring hormones in the body, interfering with the endocrine system to produce adverse developmental and reproductive effects​.

However, the full range and extent of these effects have not yet been identified​.”

Source:Reproductive Health 

Department of Obstetrics and Gynaecology, Schulich School of Medicine & Dentistry, Scientist Children’s Health Research Institute, Western University, London, ON, Canada.

Title: ​Views of pregnant women and clinicians regarding discussion of exposure to phthalate plasticizers

DOI Number:​ 10.1186/1742-4755-11-47

Author(s):​ Sapna Sharma, Justin M Ashley, Alexandra Hodgson and Jeff Nisker

FoodProductionDaily is organising a one hour debate with four guest speakers, including Jane Muncke on Food Packaging Migration on March 13.

Migration of chemicals from packaging materials is a major concern for manufacturers, suppliers and the regulatory bodies responsible for consumer safety and health.

The extent to which a substance migrates depends on the chemical, the makeup of the material(s) from which it could be released and the food with which it comes into contact. Join us at 4pm CET to hear what our panel of experts have to say on the topic by registering here.

Related topics Processing & Packaging


Excellent News!

Posted by Dr. Walt Guarino,

As someone who is producing 100% pure phthalate-free plastics for food packaging and storage containers, it makes me feel good that this evidence is being announced. I will do all in my power to spread the word.

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Phthalates in solvents

Posted by Lourens du Plessis,

We detected phthlates in the solvents (petroleum ether or hexane) used by the food industry to extract vegetable oil from oilseed. The phthalates remain in the oilcake or meal, after evaporation of the solvent. Some may be present in the extracted oil.
Maximum phthalate levels in the food grade solvents are specified but it is uncertain if it is enforced.

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