The green food movement, at its most basic level, boils down to this old adage: "You are what you eat." That's why so many people avoid foods with pesticide residue, foods that were grown with fertilizers derived from fossil fuels, foods derived from genetically modified seeds or genes, milk or meat from animals pumped up with hormones or antibiotics....
While we can look for a "USDA Organic" and other reputable labels to find those foods grown to our standards, now it seems we should also consider the packaging that bears the label.
A new study published in Environmental Science and Technology suggests there's more to avoiding packaging than avoiding waste. The chemicals in food packaging -- specifically papers treated to resist grease -- are being found in human blood, suggesting that those chemicals are leaching from the packaging to the food, and then to us.
You are what you eat, yes. You are also what that food was packaged in. And that means your blood runs thick with perfluorochemicals, according to the University of Toronto study. ("Thick" is a deliberate overstatement, given that the chemicals are measured at a scale of parts per billion, but when it comes to chemical exposure, that's the scale that health experts often worry about.)
The two most common chemicals detected are known as PFOS and PFOA, and a deep and growing body of research has already raised serious concerns about their safety. Neither is used directly in packaging, but both result from packaging chemicals -- polyfluoroalkyl phosphoric acid diesters (diPAPs) -- breaking down inside the human body.
This is the first study to link levels of PFOA and PFOS in blood to food packaging.
Other studies have linked PFOA and PFOS to a range of health problems, including infertility in women, and to liver, immune system, developmental and reproductive problems in lab animals.
In addition to food packaging, the chemicals are used to make breathable clothing, nonstick cookware, upholstery, carpets and many personal care products.
PFOS is being phased out in the U.S. by its main manufacturer, 3M, and it is being considered for worldwide ban by the United Nations. PFOA, also known as C8, was developed by 3M and then manufactured by Dupont. The Environmental Protection Agency has asked U.S. companies to voluntarily stop using the chemical by 2015. Both chemicals are long-lived in the environment, and have been found widely throughout nature, including in high concentrations in Arctic wildlife, far from sources of industrial pollution. There appears to be no plans to phase out diPAPs from food packaging, however, so people will likely be exposed to both chemicals as diPAPs break down in the human body.
Avoiding packaging helps you reduce waste. It's one of the best things you can do to green your diet. When it comes to grease-resistant paper packaging, it also may be an important part of protecting your health.
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