Industrial Food: Hazardous to your Species

Mm, mmm -- wait a minute! That's not just soup. (Photo by turtlemom4bacon/flickr)

It wasn’t a scientific study, just an exercise to test methods for a possible future study, yet its findings were so stunning and conclusive they have become the subject of widespread discussion and a major industrial damage-control effort. The sample, by common research standards, was infinitesimally small: five families, comprising ten adults and ten children. The duration was similarly minute: three days. And the methodology was hardly complex: don’t eat any packaged food. The results were amazing.

First, a little chemistry. The functioning of the living body — any living body — requires a symphony of tiny chemical reactions, thousands per second, whose complexity is far beyond our power to comprehend. How fast we grow, how much we weigh, when we mature, whether we reproduce, how we respond to a threat or an attractive potential mate — and how all these things are affected by a myriad of outside influences — are governed by a network of glands that send a constant stream of orders, in the form of hormones, to the outposts of the body to manage its long battle to survive. This network is called the endocrine system.

Industrial chemistry has unleashed on the world thousands of chemicals whose purpose ostensibly is to improve our lives, by killing bugs and weeds or by providing all manner of plastic gizmos. Many of these chemicals, we now know (now that they are in wide distribution throughout the world) are endocrine disruptors: they mimic, or interfere with, or distort the functioning of the endocrine system.

What happens when the endocrine system is disrupted is as complex as the system itself. Outcomes include autism, ADHD, cancer, reproductive abnormalities, low sperm counts, infertility, birth defects, and various diseases. Because the system is so complex, a specific dose of a specific compound never leads to a single, reproducible result. This allows any chemical company accused of doing harm to say, “you can’t prove that my chemical caused your harm. Nyah.”

Moreover, most of these compounds are persistent — they bond with fatty tissue and stay there. Thus a lifetime’s exposure to these critters accumulates in the body (and since milk is a fatty substance, a mother’s lifetime accumulation can be directly bequeathed to her children). So if you dose a person with such a compound, you may see no ill effects for months or years. At what point — in what generation — do the ill effects kick in? We don’t know. But the major dosages have been accumulating globally for about one generation, and we’re starting to see some really frightening trends.

But back to our little experiment, as reported yesterday in the San Fransisco Chronicle. The five California families selected were deprived of all packaged foods, and for three days ate only organic food that was either fresh or had been stored only in glass or stainless-steel containers. At the end of the three days, the average level of bisphenol A, also known as BPA, a major endocrine disruptor, was cut by two-thirds. Their blood levels of another endocrine disruptor, DEHP, or bis(2-ethylhexyl) phthalate, dropped by half. In three days! And immediately returned to their former levels when the families resumed their packaged-food habits.

The two chemicals are used in plastic containers and films, and to line metal cans used to package soups and vegetables and the like. The industry response, from the American Chemistry Council, was classic: “This study simply confirms these reassuring points: that consumers have minute exposures to BPA and DEHP from food sources.”

Do you feel reassured?


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