© Robert Anderson PhD
Originally published in Organic New Zealand, January/February 2004, Vol. 63 No. 1
In our last issue we carried a story on the development of low impact product packaging made from potato starch.  The story struck a nerve with retired scientist, Dr Robert Anderson.
   The significance of Phillippa Jamieson's excellent article, “Pack it in Potato” (Organic NZ, November/ December 2003), is far deeper than most of us would imagine.  In a world awash in plastics there is a very sinister side to this issue.
   A few months ago my wife purchased two containers from the local plastics shop.  Both of these were manufactured especially for food items such as breakfast cereal.  The “stink” when lifting the lid was so appalling that we rapidly dumped them both.
   Anyone who has taken the trouble to read the wonderful book, Our Stolen Future, by the eminent scientist, Theo Colborn, would realise that this “stink” almost certainly came from the plasticisers used in plastics manufacture, and is an indicator of one of, if not the, most significant factor in our escalating cancer burden.  It is also one of the major reasons why “a cure” is enthusiastically sought, rather than looking at the causes.  These plasticisers often imitate the body's own chemicals.  We are talking
here of hormone mimics, and other industrial chemicals, the like of which our bodies - and indeed nature generally - has never seen before.  “Oh, you can wash it out thoroughly, they say.  As a scientist, I can assure you we certainly cannot.
   We are not talking of dangerous levels at parts per million or even parts per billion here.  We are talking of tiny concentrations needed to do harm in the region of parts per trillion.  It is an infinitesimally small quantity.  We can roughly imagine this by using Theo Colborn's excellent example.  Take a train six miles long, comprising 660 rail tankers full of tonic water.  Introduce one drop of gin to the total volume and
this is the scenario we are talking about.
   This is a degree of sensitivity which approaches the unfathomable.  Yet it is the concentration that controls the delicate balance of species, their offspring, and other essential processes of nature.  Other unlikely chemicals, such as flame retardants, are now seeping into the human system.  Unexpectedly high levels of the chemicals has turned up in the breast milk of 20 women from several areas across the US (ONZ, May/June 2003).  That study adds to evidence that PBDEs  (polybrominated  diphenyl ethers) are yet another chemical accumulating in our fatty tissues.
   Every parent's worst nightmare became a reality when the thalidomide story hit the international headlines in the 1960s.  The pictures of infants without arms or legs were horrifying.  By the time thalidomide had been removed from the prescription pad it had caused severe deformities in 8000 children in 46 countries.  It was not long after this that doctors began to have grave suspicions over another wonder drug.  Gynaecologists hailed di-ethyl-stilbestrol (DES) as producing “bigger and
stronger” babies.  This man-made chemical acted like a natural estrogenic hormone.  It was advocated for normal pregnancies.  It appeared in the prestigious Journal of Obstetrics and Gynaecology.
   Even farmers were mustard keen on this new found “growth” hormone.  They used tons of it as an additive to animal feed, or as inserts in the neck and ears of livestock, because it hastened the fattening of chickens and cows.  Like thalidomide, it was to prove a heartbreaking disaster.  All had been fine.  Beautiful, ostensibly healthy, children had been delivered.  However, as these children grew into their teenage years, grave problems began to manifest.  A rare vaginal cancer began to show up in young women whose mothers had taken DES.  Thousands of women would require mutilating surgery to remove their uterus and vagina, in an effort to excise the cancerous deformities.  Would doctors have ever linked these problems with the DES their mothers had taken decades earlier, if it had not caused this highly rare form of cancer?
   So is there a health danger linked to the plastic containers we use now?  It was only due to the diligence of a scientist working on breast cancer that a link was found.  This scientist was puzzled that breast
cancer cells proliferated during the night in her laboratory containers.  She knew there was no nutrient material in the tubes to cause this.  After exhausting all other possibilities, she decided to examine the containers in which they were stored.  The manufacturing company supplying them, smelling a rat, refused to give her the composition of their containers.  Not dissuaded, she had them analysed
herself and, hey presto, the plastic phials were found to be contaminating the cells with a hormone-like chemical.  The phthalates such as DEHA, (di-ethylhexyl-adepate) are used in the plastics industry as plasticisers.  They make plastic soften and stretch so it can be moulded.  They are frequently also strong hormone mimics.  They have profound effects on our bodies, effects brought about by parts per trillion - or simply just a smell.
   If contamination takes place during storage, what are the effects of ingesting food products from such storage containers?  The title of a 1995 report speaks volumes:  Projections of the Cancer Burden in New Zealand, by Brian Cox, Epidemiologist and Specialist in Public Health Medicine.  A medical colleague tells me breast cancer alone now affects one in eight women, and will most probably soon rise to one in six.
   As one explores the thalidomide, DES, and similar experiences, one nagging question should haunt us.  Just how long do we continue to ignore the incredible damage of the combined effect of all these chemicals?  Almost every food container is now plastic.  Food is stored in it, wrapped in it and often cooked in it.  Even plastic electric jugs have now appeared as cheap alternatives to the more expensive, but certainly safer, stainless steel ones.  If I still had access to my laboratory instruments, I would love to do an analysis on the water boiled in plastic.  I think we would be shocked.  We have little idea of the effects of storing food in plastic containers over long periods of time.  How can any caring housewife know if a container is food grade?  What is probably more to the point is how many of these so-called “safe” plastic containers have been tested for these hormone-like chemicals?  I know of little testing carried out by the industry to ascertain safety in this respect.
   One of the most well-known tests on contamination of foods by plastic materials was carried out, not by food scientists, but a seventh form school student in the US called Claire Nelson. This innovative student realised that little, if any, research on microwaving food in plastics had ever been done.  Claire found that DEHA was migrating into food at between 200 parts and 500 parts per million.  (The FDA allowable standard is 0.00005 parts per million!)  Claire's results won her the American Chemical Society's top science prize.  The industry rushed in with damage control, maintaining that the results were not true, or that the tests were invalid, etc.  Nevertheless, Claire Nelson's summarised results were published in several science journals.
New studies on poisons in plastics
   A study of cord blood from 84 infants born consecutively at a hospital in Brindisi, Italy, found that 88 percent of the infants had been exposed in the womb to a commonly used phthalate.  The infants' exposure is associated with being born more than one week earlier than those not exposed, according to a study published in the peer-reviewed Journal,Environmental Health Perspectives (EHP) in November.  EHP says the phthalates are widely used in plastic products, such as food containers and wraps, skin softeners, moisturisers, nail polishes, insect repellents, shower curtains, hairsprays, building products, among many others.  The phthalates leach out of the products, and EHP says have become a ubiquitous environmental contaminant.  A second study, of air samples in New York City and Krakow, Poland, and parallel tests of urine samples collected from pregnant women in the same cities, found phthalate exposure in all of the 60 women studied, and in all of the air samples.  “Inhalation appears to be a significant route of exposure, given the high correlations between air and urine measures,” the authors of the exposure study write.  “This counters the general belief that ingestion of contaminated food products is the most significant exposure pathway.” The authors suggest that inhalation and possibly absorption through the skin may also be determining contamination levels.  The pregnancy duration study authors acknowledge that the potential toxic effects of phthalates on the developing foetus are unknown at this point.
N.B. EHP is the journal of the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences, part of the US Department of Health and Human Services; www.ehponline.org.

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Robert Anderson BSc (Hons), PhD (4 February 1942 to 5 December 2008)
Robert Anderson was a Trustee of Physicians and Scientists for Responsible Genetics (now Physicians and Scientists for Global Responsibility) www.psgr.org.nz. He authored The Final Pollution: Genetic Apocalypse, Exploding the Myth of Genetic Engineering and several other publications on environmental, health and social justice issues.
View Robert Anderson’s lectures on this site.
Address enquiries for Robert Anderson's publications to naturesstar@xtra.co.nz.