Issues Of The Environment: State Rep. From Ann Arbor Aims To Ban Toxic Chemicals From Food Packaging

Aug 18, 2021

Michigan State Rep. Yousef Rabhi
Credit Michigan House Democrats / housedems.com

Whether you frequent fast food restaurants or only stop by occasionally, the wrappers your food comes in may be doing harm to your health. Recent studies have found PFAs and other harmful chemicals in food packaging. State Representative Yousef Rabhi of Ann Arbor has introduced legislation to ban the use of such chemicals in food packaging. He joined WEMU's David Fair to further discuss the legislation on "Issues of the Environment."


Overview

  • New bills introduced to the Michigan Legislature in July 2021 are calling to ban toxic PFAS, BPA, and phthalates from food packaging in the state of Michigan by 2023. Introduced by Sen. Jeff Irwin (D-Ann Arbor) and Rep. Yousef Rabhi (D-Ann Arbor), Senate Bill 591 and House Bill 5250 call to ban the chemicals from the manufacturing and sale of food packaging.
  • Recently, the Ecology Center announced that a 2020 study found the chemicals in containers and wrappers from six different fast-food and health-conscious chains. PFAS, per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, are man-made chemicals found in fire-fighting foams, waterproofing, stain repellents, polishes, nonstick products and food packaging. They have been linked to adverse health issues including reduced immune response, damage to the liver and delayed development, among others, according to the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry.

  • The study found PFAS in packaging from top fast-food chains Burger King, McDonald’s, and Wendy’s as well as top health-minded food chains Cava, Freshii, and Sweetgreen. The testing suggests toxic PFAS treatment in both McDonald’s “Big Mac” container and Burger King’s “Whopper” wrapper as well as all of the health-conscious chains’ salad bowls.
  • Scientists have found links between exposures to PFAS and a wide range of health problems. “These toxic chemicals are linked to serious health problems like cancer, liver damage, decreased fertility, and asthma,” explains Dr. Linda S. Birnbaum, Scholar in Residence at Duke University, Scientist Emeritus and Former Director of the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS) and National Toxicology Program (NTP). “PFAS can weaken our immune system, making us more vulnerable to infectious diseases like COVID-19.”
  • “Right now, Michiganders are facing the impossible task of protecting themselves and their families from invisible, pervasive contaminants in the food they buy,” Rep. Rabhi said in the release. “That’s why we have food safety laws; to protect public health and give people confidence that their food is safe. These harmful substances simply should not be allowed in food packaging.”
  • Sen. Irwin argued that the use of these chemicals in food packaging required immediate attention, saying that the chemicals “suppress the immune system and are linked to an increase in numerous cancers such as kidney, ovarian, and prostate cancers.”

HB 5250 Bill Language

THE PEOPLE OF THE STATE OF MICHIGAN ENACT:

  • Sec. 5106. (1) Beginning January 1, 2023, a person shall not knowingly manufacture, sell, offer for sale, distribute for sale, or distribute for use in this state food packaging to which PFAS, bisphenols, or phthalates have been intentionally added in any amount greater than an incidental presence. 
  • (2) As used in this section:
  • (a) "Bisphenols" means industrial chemical compounds that are a component of hard plastics, such as polycarbonate, epoxy resins, and thermal receipt paper. Bisphenols include, but are not limited to, bisphenol A and its symmetrically aromatic ring-substituted derivatives, bisphenol AF, bisphenol AP, bisphenol B, bisphenol C, bisphenol C2, bisphenol E, bisphenol F, bisphenol G, bisphenol M, bisphenol S, bisphenol P, bisphenol PH, bisphenol TMC, and bisphenol Z. Bisphenols do not include an alkyl-substituted bisphenol compound generated through a xylenol-aldehyde process.
  • (b) "Food packaging" means a container or wrapper that provides a means of marketing, protecting, or handling a food and that is intended for direct food contact. Food packaging includes, but is not limited to, an unsealed receptacle, such as a carrying case, crate, cup, pail, rigid foil or other tray, wrapping film, bag, or tub. Food packaging includes the food that is contained in the food packaging, the food to which the food packaging is applied, and a plastic, disposable glove used in commercial or institutional food service.
  • (c) "Incidental presence" means the presence of a chemical as an unintended or undesired ingredient.
  • (d) "PFAS" means a chemical that contains a perfluoroalkyl or polyfluoroalkyl substance. For the purposes of food packaging, PFAS means a class of fluorinated organic chemicals containing at least 1 fully fluorinated carbon atom.
  • (e) "Phthalates" means a member of the class of organic chemicals that are esters of phthalic acid containing 2 carbon chains located in the ortho position. (Source: *directly quoted* https://www.a2cp.org/a2-zero-carbon-neutrality-plan)

What are Bisphenols?

According to the FDA, BPA is a chemical component present in polycarbonate plastic used in the manufacture of certain beverage containers and many food and beverage can liners. ... In cans, BPA-based liners form a barrier between the food and the can surface that prevents corrosion of the can and migration of metal into the food. (Source: *directly quoted* https://www.fda.gov/food/food-additives-petitions/questions-answers-bisphenol-bpa-use-food-contact-applications)

BPA stands for bisphenol A, an industrial chemical that has been used to make certain plastics and resins since the 1950s.

BPA is found in polycarbonate plastics and epoxy resins. Polycarbonate plastics are often used in containers that store food and beverages, such as water bottles. They may also be used in other consumer goods.

Epoxy resins are used to coat the inside of metal products, such as food cans, bottle tops and water supply lines. Some dental sealants and composites also may contain BPA.

Some research has shown that BPA can seep into food or beverages from containers that are made with BPA. Exposure to BPA is a concern because of the possible health effects on the brain and prostate gland of fetuses, infants and children. It can also affect children's behavior. Additional research suggests a possible link between BPA and increased blood pressure, type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular disease.

However, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has said that BPA is safe at the very low levels that occur in some foods. This assessment is based on the review of hundreds of studies. The FDA continues to monitor the research.

If you're concerned about BPA, you can take steps to reduce your exposure:

  • Use BPA-free products. Manufacturers are creating more and more BPA-free products. Look for products labeled as BPA-free. If a product isn't labeled, keep in mind that some, but not all, plastics marked with recycle code 3 or 7 may contain BPA.
  • Avoid heat. Don't put plastic containers in the microwave or dishwasher, because the heat may break them down over time and allow BPA to leach into foods.
  • Cut back on cans. Reduce your use of canned foods.
  • Use alternatives. Use glass, porcelain or stainless-steel containers for hot foods and liquids instead of plastic containers. (Source: *directly quoted* https://www.mayoclinic.org/healthy-lifestyle/nutrition-and-healthy-eating/expert-answers/bpa/faq-20058331)

Phthalates 

You can’t see, smell, or taste them, but they’re in hundreds of products you use every day. They’re also in the food you eat. Phthalates (THAL-ates) are chemicals that make plastic soft and flexible. You can find them in:

  • Cosmetics and personal care products, from perfume, nail polish, and hair spray to soap, shampoo, and skin moisturizers
  • Medical tubing and fluid bags
  • Wood finishes, detergents, adhesives, plastic plumbing pipes, lubricants, solvents, insecticides, building materials, and vinyl flooring
  • Food, especially meat and dairy products and fast food

They’re also in your body. Nearly all Americans have phthalate byproducts in their urine, says Ami Zota, assistant professor of environmental and occupational health at George Washington University. That’s a good reason to learn as much as you can about them.

How Do They Get Into My Body?

They come from: 

  • Food or beverages served or packaged in plastic that has phthalates 
  • Dairy and meat from animals that have been exposed 
  • Cosmetics, shampoo, skin moisturizers and other personal care products
  • Dust in rooms where the carpet, upholstery, or wood finishes contain phthalates

You might be more likely to get exposed if you:

What Does the Research Say?

We’re still learning about how phthalates affect us. It isn’t clear yet, because more studies have been done on animals than on people. What has been done doesn’t always address the ways they interact with other chemicals. “Very often, it’s not just one phthalate that causes a problem. The chemicals in consumer products and food work in combination, just as they do in our medications,” says William Rea, MD, director of the Environmental Health Center in Dallas.

New research areas are expanding our understanding. The link between phthalates and surging rates of chronic disease is one example. Other researchers have focused on people who are more sensitive to chemicals than most of us.

Phthalates affect different groups of people in different ways:

  • Unborn babies and children are among the most affected. Phthalates can do more harm to males.
  • Kids in puberty are also at risk. “Times of biological transformation seem to leave us vulnerable to these chemicals,” Zota says.
  • Adult women have more side effects than men, perhaps because they use more personal care products.

Phthalate levels in people are changing. Some are going up. Others are on their way down.

DBP, BBP, and DEHP have declined in recent years. They’re now below the amounts considered unsafe by federal health agencies. But exposure to replacement phthalates likes DINP, DnOP, and DIDP is higher.

Are They Safe?

There’s no simple answer to this question. Here’s why:

Phthalates aren’t a single chemical. They’re an entire family of them. And like most families, they don’t behave the same way.

Three of them, BBP, DBP, and DEHP, are permanently banned from toys and products intended to help children under 3 sleep, eat, teethe, or suck.

DBP and DEHP damage the reproductive systems of lab rats, especially males. Tests on people show DBP can irritate skin. We’re not sure if BBP causes cancer in people, but research shows it may have caused cancer in lab rats. DEHP is confirmed to cause cancer in animals, and expected, but not confirmed, in people. It also causes developmental problems in animals, but it hasn’t been shown to affect people the same way.

Three more, DiDP, DINP, and DnOP, are under an interim ban from toys that can go into a child’s mouth.

DiDP can make your eyes and skin red or cause nausea, dizziness, and vomiting. DINP causes tumors and developmental problems in lab rats. In 2014, California added it to its list of chemicals known to cause cancer. But it hasn’t been proven to cause cancer in people. DnOP was linked to endometriosis in women and caused problems in reproductive development in rats. It can irritate the skin in both people and animals.

How Can I Protect Myself?

Our bodies have a natural detoxifying system, Rea says. Your best bet is to avoid harmful phthalates as much as possible. Here’s how to start:

  • Read product labels. Phthalates aren’t always included on labels, especially with personal care products and vinyl or plastic toys. When they are identified, it’s usually with an acronym like DHEP or DiBP.
  • When you can, choose items labeled “phthalate-free.”
  • Use only “microwave safe” and phthalate-free containers and plastic wrap -- especially with oily or fatty foods.
  • Watch what you eat. Studies show that diets high in dairy and meat bring high levels of phthalate exposure.
  • Avoid fast food. Zota and other researchers have found that fast food containers can be a source of harmful exposure.
  • Ask for phthalate-free medical devices if you are on kidney dialysis or receive a blood transfusion. (Source: *directly quoted* https://www.webmd.com/a-to-z-guides/features/what-are-phthalates)

PFAS

"PFAS," or "PFAs," is an acronym for perfluoroalkyls, which are a group of man-made chemicals that are not found naturally in the environment, according to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC). These are industrial chemicals used in manufacturing.

Chemicals that are in this group include:

  • perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA)
  • perfluorooctane sulfonic acid (PFOS)
  • perfluorononanoic acid (PFNA)
  • perfluorohexane sulfonic acid (PFHxS)
  • perfluordecanoic acid (PFDeA)

How PFAS can affect your health

A large number of studies have examined possible relationships between levels of PFAs in blood and harmful health effects in people. However, most of these studies analyzed only a small number of chemicals, and not all PFAs have the same health effects. Research suggests that high levels of certain PFAs may:

  • increase cholesterol levels;
  • decrease how well the body responds to vaccines;
  • increase the risk of thyroid disease;
  • decrease fertility in women;
  • increase the risk of serious conditions like high blood pressure or pre-eclampsia in pregnant women;
  • lower infant birth weights; however, the decrease in birth weight is small and may not affect the infant’s health.
  • Animal studies have found that PFOA and PFOS can cause damage to the liver and the immune system.
  • PFOA and PFOS have also caused birth defects, delayed development, and newborn deaths in lab animals.
  • Scientists have ways to estimate how the exposure and effects in animals compare to what they would be in humans. 
  • What they learn from this process helps them decide how to protect people from harm caused by chemical exposure.

The CDC says it is unclear whether PFAS cause cancer. The International Agency for Research on Cancer has classified PFOA as possibly carcinogenic to humans but it has not evaluated whether other PFAs may also cause cancer. The Department of Health and Human Services has not yet evaluated whether these chemicals can cause cancer. The Environmental Protection (EPA) suggest that there is evidence that PFAs may have the potential to cause cancer. 

Transcription

David Fair: This is 89 one WEMU and welcome to Issues of the Environment. I'm David Fair, and in this edition of our weekly series, we're going to look at efforts in the state Legislature to ban toxic chemicals from many of the food packaging items we encounter on a rather regular basis. The chemicals in question are pinafores, phthalates, and bisphenol A. A companion legislation piece has been introduced in the state House and Senate by a couple of Democrats from Ann Arbor. Jeff Irwin has put forth Senate Bill 519, and our guest today has introduced House Bill 5250. Representative Yousef Rabhi, thank you for coming back once again to WEMU, even if by phone.

Yousef Rabhi: It is my pleasure, as always, thank you for having me here.

David Fair: A while back on Issues of the Environment, we covered a study conducted by the Ann Arbor-based Ecology Center in which it found PFAs in fast food wrappers and food containers from a number of restaurants. An abundance of fast food isn't all that good for your health to begin with, but add in potential exposure to harmful toxics, and it's a double whammy. Prior to that report. How aware were you of the potential dangers?

Yousef Rabhi: Actually, it's something that my office has been monitoring for quite some time, and it's actually not just fast food wrappers that we've seen these PFAs contaminants in. It's actually in a lot of items that you can buy at the grocery store, things like the microwavable popcorn containers, you know, that you pop in the microwave, and they're easy to use. But, unfortunately, many times they do have PFAs lining inside of them. And some of the things that we're concerned about even more recently that we've been seeing is even some of the compostable containers that are pretty commonly available now do have forms of those compounds in their lining as well. Actually, it's pretty common.

David Fair: And if you compost it, it goes directly into the ground and that leads to the water. And that's a problem.

Yousef Rabhi: Yeah, exactly. And even leads to our municipal compost facility in some cases, which has been an issue in the past.

David Fair: So you've been monitoring for a while. Take us inside the conversations you had with Senator Jeff Irwin in deciding to draft and put forth these companion measures now.

Yousef Rabhi: Yeah, absolutely. So, Jeff and I obviously worked very closely together. You know, we're a good team up in Lansing, especially in environmental issues. And this is one of those where, you know, both him and I think really care deeply, not just about the environment, but about human public health and making sure that we are protecting not just health of our constituents, but the health of everybody across the state and raising awareness about these issues. I think part of it, too, is that, you know, we're, you know, a couple of legislators that aren't really afraid to stand up to some of the corporate interests, the manufacturers who have a vested interest in us not doing things like this because of, you know, the profits that they're making.

David Fair: I've heard the word "agitator" thrown about.

Yousef Rabhi: Yeah, a little bit. Little bit. But, you know, we're willing to stand up to those folks and really do what's right for the people at the end of the day, instead of, you know, helping to back what those corporations are doing in terms of, frankly, poisoning people. [00:03:07][12.7]

David Fair: As you were further studying the details of PFA's, Phthalates and bisphenol A, what was most striking to you, the potential harm to health or the fact that most of us encounter these health risks without ever being aware of it?

Yousef Rabhi: I think it's both. I think it's when I found out that, you know, more than 95 percent of people have some people in their system already. And it's the fact that we've been sort of living with these compounds for years now without even really knowing it. And, you know, there's this sort of shame in it, too. When you go to the grocery store and you buy something off the shelf, you know, we have sort of a sense that we want to be confident that what we're buying has been that it's safe.

David Fair: We kind of take that for granted, don't we?

Yousef Rabhi: We take it. Yeah, we take it for granted. And the idea, the notion that, you know, that we could be buying things that are bad for us is something that's unsettling, I think, both to me and to Senator Irwin and to hopefully most of the listeners, you know. And so, it's something that we wanted to do something about. I mean, it's not the kind of thing that we can sit around and wait for somebody else to take action. It's time to take action now and raise awareness on this issue.

David Fair: We're talking with state Representative Yousef Rabhi of Ann Arbor on Eighty-Nine one WEMU's Issues of the Environment. Representative Rabhi also serves as House Democratic floor leader. I had mentioned that study from the Ecology Center that specifically studied some of the food wrappers from fast food restaurants, finding PFAs in Burger King, McDonald's, Wendy's wrappers. But it also found that some of the healthier food chains, like Kava, Freshie and Sweet Garden, had containers with us as well. How exactly does your measure seek to compel the food industry to get rid of these chemicals in their products?

Yousef Rabhi: Well, essentially, they can't use them. So, it's saying that they can't, simply, they can't use them in their products anymore. There are alternatives. I don't know all the scientific, you know, details of how those alternatives work. But, you know, there are plenty of alternatives out there that they don't need to use these compounds in those in those packages. And when there's been awareness drives in the past around, you know, BPA and stuff like that, you know, there's been changes in how those, you know, packaging and plastics manufacturers have created their bottles or their packaging and so forth. And we've seen that change over time. So, it's about making sure that consumers are aware, and it's about making sure that we're changing legislation, so that these types of things just aren't allowed anymore.

David Fair: Do you know if these chemicals you proposed to ban in the food packaging are of incidental presence, meaning it is an unintended or undesired ingredient, or is it something that is very purposefully put in those containers?

Yousef Rabhi: It depends on the situation. In some cases, the compounds are very much needed for a specific purpose, whether they're water resistant quality or, you know, in the case of like a Teflon pan. Those, you know, we're found to have a lot of PFAs in them, you know. And so, obviously, my bill wouldn't necessarily have a huge impact on that. But it's, you know, that's the kind of thing where, you know, it was put in there for the purpose of making it more resistant on those types of surfaces.

David Fair: Now, you touched on this, but I want to follow it a little further down the line. When we started to better understand the environmental dangers of Styrofoam, most of the industry moved away from that and into the paper packaging we see today. So logic might tell us now that we know the dangers of what's in the paper, another change should come about. Have you had any direct conversations with leadership within the food and food packaging industry?

Yousef Rabhi: We have had some calls and conversations because, actually, it's this is a pretty big change, and but, you know, I'm sure that there's more conversations that we could have, and I'm sure that there's more conversations that will come about as a result of us introducing this bill. We have had some bipartisan interest in it. So, I think that the fact that, you know, there's more and more people that are becoming involved in this issue, and it's not really necessarily a partisan one. I mean, we've seen PFAs issues in in various parts of the state, Republican areas, Democratic areas. And so, you know, legislators around the state are taking note of this. And as there's increased pressure, I think that we'll see more folks from the food industry coming to the table to want to have these conversations. I don't think that they're really taking us seriously right now. And I think that's part of the problem.

David Fair: Our Issues of the Environment conversation with state Representative Yousef Rabhi continues on Eighty-Nine one WEMU. You mentioned that there seems to be growing bipartisan support for these measures and these kinds of measures. But let's face it, environmental and public health legislation hasn't seen much success in Lansing of late. When you say there is growing bipartisan support, have any Republicans signed on to your measure as co-sponsors?

Yousef Rabhi: I don't believe so, not as of introduction, but I have had some that have approached me about interest in the bill post introduction that, you know, are interested in helping to push it forward. So, that's given me some hope. It's not something that you see all the time with bills like this. We definitely have introduced a lot of environmental legislation. But, you know, we don't often get that kind of response. So, that gave me a little bit of hope.

David Fair: And when you don't get that kind of response, then it means it rarely even gets a committee hearing. Has this been given a date for committee hearing as we move through the laborious process of trying to turn it into law?

Yousef Rabhi: Not yet, but I will say that part of that is because we have not had many committee hearings in the last several months as a result of the fact that we're on our...

David Fair: Recess.

Yousef Rabhi: [00:09:06] ...schedule. Yeah, so I introduced that right before the Fourth of July weekend. And so there's still plenty of time for that to come forward through that process. And I'm not too worried about the fact that it hasn't come up yet. I think there's still an opportunity there.

David Fair: I know you to be an optimist, and we can already hear it in your voice and in your answers. But as you assess the situation as it is today, do you think it gets to a vote of the full legislature and put on Governor Whitmer's desk this year? Or do you anticipate having to reintroduce next year?

Yousef Rabhi: I think if we could get a committee hearing, or even a committee vote, that would be a significant win in my mind. So that's what I'm hopeful for. I'm not as hopeful to get it through the legislative process this term. That having been said, you know, and I just want to say part of why I'm not optimistic about that, because I do believe that the impact and the power of the manufacturers, the food industry will have--they will weigh in on this issue. And, you know, they are very powerful. And so, I think it's realistic to assume that they will put their full weight behind defeating this measure. So, that's why I think, you know, if we can get a hearing, if we can get it through the committee process, that is a significant win, in my opinion, at least on the House side, because it demonstrates that this issue--bipartisan--demonstrates that this issue has legs. And even if we can't get it done this term, it sets us up for future legislative sessions to be able to address this important issue.

David Fair: Well, we'll be following along. And as it advances on whatever schedule it may be, we'll be in touch again.

Yousef Rabhi: Excellent. That sounds good, David. Thank you for the opportunity here.

David Fair: That is state Representative Yousef Rabhi from Ann Arbor. He is House Democratic floor leader and sponsor of the measure to ban invisible dangers in the form of toxic chemicals in our food packaging. For more information on the bill and its companion measure from State Senator Jeff Irwin, visit our website at WEMU dot org. I'm David Fair, and this is Eighty-Nine WEMU FM and WEMU HD One Ypsilanti.

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— David Fair is the WEMU News Director and host of Morning Edition on WEMU.  You can contact David at 734.487.3363, on twitter @DavidFairWEMU, or email him at dfair@emich.edu