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Plastic Wrap and Health:
Studies Raise Questions

By Marian Burros
Copyright 1999 New York Times
January 13, 1999


Plastic wrap seals so many everyday foods in the supermarket, from cheese to meat, that it's easy to take it for granted. But now there is a new worry about exactly how safe this ubiquitous convenience product may be.

The concern is that some plastic wraps contain endocrine disrupters, which can mimic or interfere with hormones in the body. The Environmental Protection Agency has begun to screen thousands of chemicals to see which ones may be endocrine disrupters and need further study. Some studies have suggested that disrupters can cause breast cancer, birth defects, low sperm count and mental problems. While evidence continues to accumulate that disrupters have an effect on animals, scientists are in heated debate about its meaning for humans. In the meantime, some consumers are acting on their own to to minimize exposure.

As hormones travel through the bloodstream, they affect metabolism, growth, reproduction and other bodily functions. The disrupters can throw a monkey wrench into that finely tuned endocrine system. The best known of the suspected endocrine disrupters are dioxin, DDT and PCB's.

Some data suggest that a plasticizer in some forms of the wrap, known in the industry as polyvinyl chloride (PVC) cling wrap, is an endocrine disrupter. The chemical name for this plasticizer, a component that adds clinginess to the wrap, is di-(2-ethylhexyl)adipate, or DEHA. The plasticizer is in the plastic film grocery stores use to wrap wedges of cheese and meat and also in at least one brand of household wrap.

Because research has shown that plasticizers can leach into food on contact, especially food with a high fat content, Consumers Union recently tested prewrapped cheese. Nineteen pieces of cheese were analyzed, and the seven that were wrapped in the PVC cling wrap used by supermarkets contained consistently high levels of DEHA. The levels ranged from 51 to 270 parts per million, with an average of 153.

"These are very large amounts," said Edward Groth, an environmental scientist and food safety specialist with Consumers Union, though he acknowledged that no one knows if the levels are harmful. The European Community has set a provisional limit of 18 parts per million for DEHA migration from plastic wraps to food.

In a separate study, Consumers Union tested seven national and store brands of consumer plastic wrap for plasticizers: Glad Crystal Clear Polyethylene, Duane Reade, Foodtown, Dowbrands Saran Wrap, America's Choice, White Rose and Reynolds Plastic Wrap. Only Reynolds Wrap was found to be made with DEHA. There is no way to tell by looking at the box if a wrap contains DEHA.

The Reynolds Metals Company issued a statement saying it was in full compliance with all regulatory agencies: "DEHA is used in Reynolds Plastic Wrap," it said. "However, there has never been a study that Reynolds is aware of that connects this material with endocrine disruption."

The Society of the Plastics Industry, an industry group, says that the Food and Drug Administration and the Environmental Protection Agency have both given DEHA a clean bill of health. "There is no reason to believe DEHA is an endocrine disrupter," Dr. George Pauli, the director of the division of product policy in the Food and Drug Administration's office of premarket approval, said in an interview last week. In 1996, the agency had said there was "insufficient evidence at this time" to demonstrate that DEHA causes hormone disruption.

The lack of sufficient evidence was due to the absence of studies, said Dr. Gina Solomon, a physician and senior scientist with the Natural Resources Defense Council, the environmental group, in San Francisco. A number of studies done since 1996 indicate that "DEHA is almost certainly an endocrine disrupter," she said last week. "DEHA has been studied in a number of species of rodents, where it has been shown to interfere with male reproductive function in all species," she said. "The question is, what does that mean for humans? It is still unclear what the risks are."

The European Community's Scientific Committee for Food's estimated safe daily DEHA dose for a 40-pound child would be exceeded by merely eating one and a half ounces of the seven high-scoring cheese samples in the Consumers Union study. For a 130-pound adult, four ounces would be the limit.

Consumers Union wants the United States to require manufacturers to replace DEHA with a safer plasticizer, as British manufacturers did 10 years ago. In a letter to the Food and Drug Administration, Dr. Groth said DEHA had not been adequately evaluated for its possible endocrine effects. "It is a risk we consider potentially more significant than carcinogenicity for this chemical," he said.

Whole Foods Markets, a chain of 87 natural food supermarkets across the country, is not waiting for Government action. It is asking manufacturers of the cling wrap used in their stores directly whether the products contain DEHA, said Margaret Wittenberg, the quality assurance director.

Fortunately, consumers can take steps now to reduce exposure to DEHA.

* Remove cling wrap immediately from cheese or meat, and store the product in a plastic bag or container.

* Remove most DEHA, at least from hard cheeses, by using a cheese slicer to take a millimeter off the surface. You can also scrape off a very fine layer of meat.

* Purchase meat from a butcher, and ask for it to be wrapped in paper. Purchase cheese from a wheel, and ask to have it wrapped in paper or put in a plastic bag.

* Keep food in a ceramic bowl covered with plastic, without letting it touch the food.

Under no circumstances should you permit plastic wrap to touch food when it is cooked in a microwave oven. Even the plastics industry agrees on that.

CORRECTION-DATE: January 20, 1999, Wednesday

   A picture of a package of plastic wrap was published in error last Wednesday with the Eating Well column in the Dining section, which reported a study of potentially harmful effects of a substance found in some plastic wraps. The product shown was not part of the study. Details are on page F2.

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