FDA Allows Hormone-Disrupting Phthalates in Food Packaging

The chemicals can leach into food and drinks, causing infertility, birth defects, and harm to brain development


Erin Fitzgerald, efitzgerald@earthjustice.org

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) today denied petitions to ban phthalates, toxic chemicals that leach into food and drinks, seriously harming human health. Scientific evidence proves phthalates are a toxic petrochemical used in food packaging and contaminate products like meat, milk, and spices. While the FDA still allows companies to use phthalates in many products despite a decades-old Congressional ban on the toxins’ use in children’s toys and the availability of safer alternatives to the chemicals, the agency said it will evaluate its use in food-contact products instead and wants more information from the public.

A growing body of evidence shows phthalates harm a body’s hormone-regulated processes, causing birth defects, infertility, miscarriage, breast cancer, diabetes, and asthma. The toxin is particularly harmful to young children and babies, stunting brain development, leading to reduced attention spans, and causing behavioral disorders. Women and people of color face higher risks of health problems from phthalates exposure compared to the general population.

“FDA’s decision recklessly green-lights ongoing contamination of our food with phthalates, putting another generation of children at risk of life-altering harm to their brain development and exacerbating health inequities experienced by Black and Latina women,” said Earthjustice attorney Katherine O’Brien. “FDA’s announcement that it will now start reviewing new data on phthalate safety — six years after advocates sounded the alarm — is outrageous and seeks to sidestep FDA’s legal duty to address the current science in proceedings on the existing petitions.”

Federal rules outlaw the use of chemicals in food or food-contact materials unless scientifically proven that they are safe by considering the cumulative effect of all other chemicals in the diet. The FDA must apply this rule by routinely assessing new chemicals and reviewing how safe current ones are as scientists perform more studies.

In March 2016, a coalition of advocacy groups submitted two petitions urging FDA to ban phthalates as food additives, but the agency sat on the request for years despite a legal mandate to make a final decision on it within 180 days. Advocates sued FDA in federal court in December 2021, forcing the agency to finally decide on the toxin’s use in food and drinks.

FDA did, however, grant a plastics industry petition to repeal federal approval for multiple phthalates added to food packaging and processing equipment, asserting that companies have abandoned such uses. FDA’s decisions today leave many phthalates, mainly those shown to do the most harm, on the market and in food, personal care products, cosmetics, cleaning products, and more. People’s cumulative exposure to these toxins through multiple products increases their risk of health harm.

The 2016 petitions were submitted by Earthjustice, Environmental Defense Fund, Center for Environmental Health, Center for Food Safety, Center for Science in the Public Interest, Clean Water Action, Consumer Federation of America, Improving Kids’ Environment, Learning Disabilities Association of America, Breast Cancer Prevention Partners, and Natural Resources Defense Council. Defend Our Health and Alaska Community Action on Toxics joined the litigation to force FDA action on the petitions after years of delay.





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