Environmental groups are demanding that the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) take swift action to ban phthalates from food packaging and processing materials, in a lawsuit filed in a Washington, D.C. federal court on Tuesday.
Phthalates - endocrine-disrupting chemicals that can interfere with hormone function - are linked to birth effects, infertility, miscarriage, learning disabilities and neurological disorders in children, according to the lawsuit. Young children, as well as communities of color and low-income individuals, face increased risks of serious health complications due to phthalate exposure in comparison to the general population, the groups said.
"FDA is sitting on years of scientific evidence that phthalates used in food packaging and processing materials are dangerous to human health," Earthjustice attorney Katherine O'Brien, whose organization filed the lawsuit, said in a statement. "While FDA idles, babies and children are consuming phthalates in their food that endanger their brain development and long-term health."
Although a coalition of health and environmental advocates filed two petitions in 2016 asking the FDA to prohibit phthalates in food packaging and process materials, the FDA still has not acted - despite the fact that the administration was required by law to respond to the principal petition within 180 days, according to the suit.
Earthjustice filed the lawsuit on behalf of the Environmental Defense Fund, the Learning Disabilities Association of America, the Center for Food Safety, the Center for Environmental Health, the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI), Breast Cancer Prevention Partners, Defend Our Health and Alaska Community Action on Toxics.
"Every phthalate that has been studied for health effects has been found to pose a health risk," Tom Neltner, chemicals policy director for Environmental Defense Fund, said in a statement. "It's past time for the FDA to act on all phthalates as a class of chemicals that do not belong in our food."
Decades of scientific studies demonstrate that exposure to phthalates can lead to irreversible health harms, as the chemicals can leach out of these materials into infant formula, dairy products, meats, baked goods, cereals, snacks foods and other food products, the groups said. But despite the ubiquitous nature of the compounds in so many foods, phthalates are not disclosed on labels, the suit added.
Russ Hauser, a professor at Harvard Medical School and the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, said in a statement that the FDA's failure to take action on this issue "has caused unnecessary and avoidable harm to the health of people across the United States, especially infants and young children."
"There is extensive scientific evidence that phthalates the FDA has authorized for food-contact uses are unsafe, and FDA action to eliminate these chemicals from food is long overdue," Hauser added.