Monday, May 17, 2010

Phthalates in food: to avoid 'em, choose organic

Phthalates in Food: To avoid ‘em, choose organic

GreenerPenny aims to keep you posted about how to avoid phthalates, chemicals that have been found to interfere with the body's hormones, lower children's IQ, and even cause childhood behavioral problems. New studies have found associations between high phthalate levels and lower IQ scores and behavioral problems. There's no hard evidence that phthalates actually cause these problems, but nevertheless, scary stuff!These sneaky chemicals crop up on products made with vinyl, like shower curtains, tile flooringand some plastic cling wraps used on food, and anything that's artificially fragranced—shampoos, lotions, laundry detergents. So avoiding those products and storing food in glass or stainless steel containers should, in theory, keep you and your home free of phthalates.

But phthalates may, it turns out, be lurking in your refrigerator, in conventional produce and poultry. In a new study published this month in Environmental Health Perspectives, Justin Colacino, a grad student from the University of Michigan, used data from the CDC's National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey to collect information about levels of phthalates in people's urine and what they ate. He found that people who ate poultry had some of the highest levels of phthalates in their bodies, and also that eating a lot of fresh produce, particularly potatoes and tomatoes, was associated with high phthalate levels.

A second study published this month in a journal called Abstracts of Environmental Research offers more evidence that our food may be contaminated with these chemicals. This study was relatively small and involved sending 25 adults to live in a Buddhist temple in Korea for five days (Koreans, the authors write, have even higher levels of phthalates in their bodies than Americans do). Before the study started, they were asked to recall everything they ate for 48 hours, and their urine levels were tested for phthalates. The researchers noted that eating a lot of dairy was associated with high levels of phthalates. Then, for five days, the adults at a vegetarian diet, at the end of which their urine was tested and phthalate levels measured a second time. There was a marked drop in the levels of phthalates in people's bodies after the five days.

Neither study was very clear as to how these chemicals are making their way into our food. (In the Korean study, the authors didn't specify whether their "vegetarian diet" included dairy and they didn't say whether the adults were exposed to personal care or cleaning products that contained phthalates, so their results may have overestimated food as a source of phthalate exposure). However, Colacino writes that phthalates are used in many pesticides, and because they bypass wastewater treatment plants, phthalates can end up in sewage sludge, which is used to fertilize conventional crops. The pesticides and sewage sludge are used on the vegetables we eat and on the corn that's fed to cows and chicken.

No study should deter people from eating a healthy diet that includes fresh vegetables, even if this produce contains phthalates, but you can cut down on your exposure to phthalate-contaminated pesticides and sewage sludge with one simple shopping tip: buy organic.

• Pesticides and sewage sludge aren't used by organic farmers, so you can at least be sure that your tomatoes and potatoes won't have as high levels of phthalates as their conventional counterparts; potatoes, by the way, are on the Environmental Working Group's "Dirty Dozen" list for having some of the highest levels of pesticide residues.

• Don't rely on "certified pesticide free" labels that are cropping up on grocery store produce. Those aren't verified by any independent third parties and they also don't guarantee your produce wasn't grown in phthalate-laden sludge.

• Buy local. Organic produce can be expensive, but it's farmer's market season! Now's the time to find a local farmer who grows food organically, whether it's certified organic or not, and stock up. And let your freezer be your best friend. Learn how to freeze vegetables (it's so easy a Caveman can do it!) so you can eat local and organic throughout the winter without making too big of a dent in your wallet.

--by Emily Main

For further info:

The IQ study appeared in March:

The behavior study was in January of this year:

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