“What do you eat?”

That’s what a Maine legislator asked me last month at a science briefing about synthetic chemicals that contaminate food and harm human health.

A guest of the Maine Legislature’s Environment and Natural Resources Committee, I was answering questions about the effects on babies, children and adults of synthetic chemicals that contaminate foods. They were most interested in hearing about perfluoroalkyl substances known as PFAS and phthalates (THAL-eights). PFAS are used in cooking pans and food packaging to prevent food from sticking to them, while phthalates are used to make vinyl and other plastics soft and flexible for wrapping foods.

As a doctor who has dedicated my career to children’s environmental health, I was pleased to learn there’s growing bipartisan support for L.D. 1433, the Safe Food Packaging Act, which would phase out phthalates and PFAS from food packaging.

Both groups of chemicals can disrupt hormones, the molecules our body uses to signal so many bodily functions, from body temperature and metabolism to salt, sugar and even sex. PFAS and phthalates are among the synthetic chemicals that scramble those signals and contribute to disease. The evidence has increasingly pointed to these chemicals as a third major factor in the obesity epidemic, even producing weight gain among adults who had successfully dieted their way to lose weight.

One or both of these groups of chemicals may also contribute to a host of other illnesses and health concerns, including infertility, kidney and testicular cancer, reduced birth weight, asthma and allergies and learning disabilities, and obesity. Researchers are exploring how phthalates may also inhibit testosterone function, thereby creating a major risk for adult cardiovascular disease and stroke.

There are economic costs, too. PFAS alone, in contributing to reduced birth weight and harm to children’s brain development, cost the United States billions of dollars in health care as well as lost economic productivity. Clearly, these chemicals can make us poorer.

How do they get into food?

As it’s processed, phthalates get into food from workers’ gloves, inks and adhesives and more. PFAS get into food because they’re used in grease-resistant packaging such as microwave popcorn bags, butter wrappers, cupcake and muffin wrappers, and takeout food wrap.

Called “forever chemicals,” PFAS are persistently long lasting in both the environment and our bodies. Discarding food packaging puts PFAS into the waste stream, where they can enter and remain, contaminating, for example, ground and drinking water, compost and sewage sludge from waste treatment plants.

The day before I talked with the committee members, news reports had detailed how a family-owned dairy farm in Arundel has been contaminated by PFAS originating from sewage sludge – also called “biosolids.” For decades, states nationwide have authorized spreading sludge as farmland fertilizer.

That terrible story of a farming family’s livelihood ruined, and scores of consumers potentially exposed to unsafe milk, is adding to growing concern in Maine and nationwide about harm from PFAS in what we are drinking and eating.

So, what do I eat? And what do my wife and I feed our kids?

We try to do what I recommend your family does. Avoid foods that are highly packaged or processed. Buy fresh food that’s not wrapped in plastic. Avoid canned foods, too. And look out for plastic bottles or containers marked on the bottom with 3, 6 or 7, because they are made with either phthalates, styrene (a known carcinogen) or bisphenols, which are synthetic estrogens that also may contribute to obesity.

The real solution, of course, is in companies using safer alternatives, rather than the chemical industry denying health harms and delaying significant changes.

At this point, prevention is up to the states, considering the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s failure to pressure chemical manufacturers and take the kind of effective action needed to stop contamination, especially by PFAS. Beautiful Maine, the state where my wife and I spent our honeymoon and bring our children to visit, can be a strong leader by limiting PFAS and phthalates in food.

Augusta and Waterville news

Get news and events from your towns in your inbox every Friday.


  • This field is for validation purposes and should be left unchanged.