When a colleague in the United Kingdom faxed me "Sex-Change Chemicals in Baby Milk," a June 27, 1996 story from the London Independent, I was horrified and outraged that something many parents rely on to be wholesome nourishment for their children could be contaminated with a class of chemicals under scrutiny for possible hormonal effects. The story and subsequent others said phthalates (pronounced "THA' lates"), chemicals commonly used in plastics--especially polyvinyl chloride (PVC)--and printing inks, had been found in samples of British powdered baby formula at levels near those found to cause reproductive effects in rats.
As an activist and food safety project director at the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy, I had always been concerned about the pervasiveness and potential adverse effects of phthalates. But the litany of possible health effects from phthalate exposure didn't strike hard until October of last year, when I had to stop nursing my son because of medication I'm taking for a chronic illness. Suddenly, it wasn't just someone else's kids possibly at risk, but my son, too. Whether parents use formula by choice or necessity, concern over chemical exposure should not have to be a factor in selecting a formula.
What Happened in the United Kingdom?
In 1996, the Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Fisheries (MAFF) tested fifty-nine samples of fifteen different brands of powdered infant formula (cows' milk and soy) and found phthalates present in all of them. The two phthalates most commonly found were dibutyl phthalate (DBP) and di-ethylexyl phthalate (DEHP).
The levels of phthalates found in the British formula--1.2 to 10.2 milligrams/kilogram--were above the precautionary limit established by the European Commission Scientific Committee on Food. The findings were published in the media, and many parents became concerned for their children's health and welfare.
The MAFF initially refused to release the names of the formula companies, all of whom insisted their products were safe. Parents got angry. One mother who picketed the MAFF offices said, "This is not like the BSE [bovine spongiform encephalopathy, or "mad cow disease"] scare, where people can decide not to eat beef. Milk is the mainstay of our children's diets. This is the future of our children we're talking about. [The ministry] just doesn't care."
The British press made a tremendous fuss over a statement by Dr. Richard Sharpe, an eminent researcher known for his work on declining sperm counts. Dr. Sharpe said, "I look at my data showing which level of intake of one phthalate in laboratory rats can result in a ten percent decrease in sperm production, and I see that this level is ten to 100 times higher than the levels of this phthalate in baby milk powder reported by the Ministry of Agriculture." Dr. Sharpe appears not to have considered that infant formula is not a baby's sole source of phthalate exposure. He also failed to apply the precautionary principle, which states: "When an activity raises threats of harm to human health or the environment, precautionary measures should be taken even if some cause and effect relationships are not fully established scientifically."
How do Phthalates get into Formula?
The Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Fisheries (MAFF) speculated that general environmental contamination was a factor in the tests they conducted. Cows' milk itself may contain phthalates due to environmental contamination (as may human milk, for that matter). As global use of PVC plastic in construction and other sectors of the economy rises, so does the use of phthalates, causing a likely increase in the general levels of environmental phthalate contamination.
Phthalates may also end up in formula via packaging: numerous studies prove phthalates can and do migrate from packaging into food. A fact sheet on DEHP, used primarily to make polyvinyl chloride (PVC) plastic flexible, explains that we may be exposed to DEHP by eating "some foods packaged in plastics, especially fatty foods like milk products [emphasis mine], fish and seafood, oils . . ."
Another possibility is that plasticizers migrate from plastic tubing used during formula manufacture into the formula itself, since DEHP has been found to migrate from the plastic into foods, especially ones containing fat.
Regulatory agencies in the U.S. don't seem to be practicing the precautionary principle, which begs the question, "Why should my child be exposed to a chemical that appears to be hazardous when that exposure is unnecessary and can be eliminated?"
Ninety percent of phthalates are used in plastics; however, they are also used in printing inks, adhesives, coatings, and even pesticides. They are the most abundant chemicals made by humans in the environment, so we're all exposed (remember, even breast milk probably isn't immune from phthalate contamination). Statements such as "most people are exposed to low levels in air, water, and food" appeared on every government fact sheet I found on various phthalates. Individual levels in formula, food, air, and water may be low, but what is the sum total of that daily exposure to phthalates alone? And is there an additive or synergistic ("1+1=5") effect, when one considers the array of other chemicals to which we're exposed on a daily basis?
Looking for Answers
Since the U.K. and the U.S. have very different regulations and products, I set out to learn what's happening here. Answers were hard to come by: despite a flurry of news stories in Europe, this issue has gotten surprisingly little attention from the American media.