EDF Health

10 ways the incoming FDA Commissioner should protect people from toxic chemicals in food

Tom Neltner, Chemicals Policy Director.

The FDA’s critical role in the COVID-19 pandemic has brought intense interest in whom President Biden will nominate to lead the agency as its new commissioner.

While COVID-19 is the priority, the FDA obviously has many vital other responsibilities. Though it doesn’t get that much attention, one of the important roles of the agency is to protect the public from unsafe chemicals in food. Frankly, their record has been disappointing, but the new administration has an opportunity to fix some key problems that scientists and doctors have been warning us about for years.

Here are ten things the new FDA Commissioner should do to keep unsafe chemicals out of our food. The list ranges from actions on specific chemicals to broader reforms.

  1. Stop letting industry decide for themselves, in secret, whether chemicals are safe and can be added to food. EDF, represented by Earthjustice, and the Center for Food Safety, have sued the agency to close the dangerous “Generally Recognized as Safe” loophole.
  2. Systematically reassess dangerous food chemicals it has allowed to be used in food based on new information. The FDA approved the use of many chemicals in food decades ago, and we now have evidence that some of these are unsafe. A chemical shouldn’t be given a forever approval. There needs to be a systematic process to review the scientific evidence, especially when new risks come to light.
  3. Ban the use of perchlorate, an ingredient in rocket fuel, from use in plastic packaging and equipment that comes into contact with food. Perchlorate gets into food, and exposure is particularly dangerous for pregnant women, infants, and young children, as it has been linked to developmental delays, reduced growth, and impaired learning abilities. We’ve sued the FDA to get this chemical out of food, and the case is pending.
  4. Comply with its 60-year-old Congressional mandate to look at the cumulative effect of chemical exposures people have when deciding whether to approve the use of related chemicals in food. EDF’s investigation of 900 approval decisions found that just one followed this common-sense mandate. The reality is that no one is exposed to just one chemical – so the agency shouldn’t be analyzing chemicals’ safety as if that were the case. FDA must respond to a petition filed by EDF and other organizations demanding that the agency follow the law and assess chemicals as classes.
  5. Drive down levels of heavy metals in food. Over the last decades, evidence has emerged of concerning levels of lead, arsenic, and cadmium in food consumed by children, such as rice, juice, and root crops like sweet potatoes and carrots. The FDA should move quickly and aggressively on its new commitment to set limits on heavy metals in food children eat and should also set limits for other food.
  6. Use modern science when evaluating if a chemical poses a health risk. The FDA is stuck in the past by relying on outdated, less accurate scientific methods and ignoring the evolving information we now know about chemical exposure. You wouldn’t insist on driving a car the Flintstones drove just because that was the first car ever.
  7. Prohibit lead from being added to materials that contact food, such as the tin that lines metal cans, and tighten limits for lead in bottled water. EDF’s analysis of FDA data found lead in 98% of certain canned fruits compared to 3% in fresh or frozen types. We’ve sent a formal petition to FDA requesting it immediately take action to ban these harmful and unnecessary uses of lead. Though it’s not a food safety issue, the FDA should also reject a challenge to its decision to ban lead acetate in hair dye. That challenge has put the FDA decision on hold, meaning that people are literally still putting lead on their head!
  8. Prohibit ortho-phthalates from being added to food packaging and processing equipment. These chemicals are known to disrupt hormones and harm brain development. The FDA is significantly overdue in meeting its legally required deadline to make a decision based on a petition from 2016 by EDF and nine other consumer, public health, and environmental groups to ban these chemicals.
  9. Be more transparent about the decisions it is making on chemicals in food. Information about FDA decisions should be publicly available without a Freedom of Information Act request and a months-long wait to learn more about agency actions on the chemicals in our food supply.
  10. Take aggressive action on harmful PFAS in food packaging and processing equipment. PFAS (Per- and poly-fluorinated alkyl substances) can provide water and grease resistance to paper and paperboard and can also leach into food. Growing evidence links PFAS to a wide range of serious health effects – from developmental problems to cancer. And now we know that many types of PFAS bioaccumulate in the body.
Also posted in FDA, Food, GRAS, Health Policy, Regulation / Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

A closer look at FDA’s “Closer to Zero” plan to reduce for heavy metals in children’s food

Tom Neltner, J.D. is the Chemicals Policy Director.

This month, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) released its “Closer to Zero” action plan to reduce exposure to heavy metals in foods for babies and young children. The plan, released in response to a recent House of Representatives Committee on Oversight and Reform report and the introduction of the Baby Food Safety Act in both the House and the Senate, is a step forward since it commits the agency to specific actions and general deadlines for the first time. However, there is room for improvement, specifically the agency should:

  1. Explicitly consider the cumulative effect of heavy metals on neurodevelopment when setting limits.
  2. Move up deadlines for draft action levels for arsenic and cadmium;
  3. Be consistent in messaging that there is no safe level of lead in children’s blood;
  4. Define what “as low as possible” and “children’s food” means as soon as possible;
  5. Be transparent by posting testing data quickly; and
  6. Add milestones for compliance verification with action levels and preventive controls.

Read More »

Also posted in FDA, Food, lead / Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

Lead pipes are in the news – Here’s why that matters

Sam Lovell, Communications Manager. 

“How many of you know, when you send your child to school, the fountain they’re drinking out of is not fed by a lead pipe?”

That stark question was posed by President Biden in a briefing following the announcement of the American Jobs Plan. The President’s historic infrastructure package includes $45 billion to fully replace lead pipes across the country. This has caused a surge of attention nationally on the problem of lead pipes, as administration officials and members of Congress voice support of the plan and local media outlets report on the implications of the investment.

And this attention is well-placed: across the country, an estimated 9.2 million lead service lines still provide water to US homes – putting children at risk of lead exposure and permanent harm to their brain development. While this has been an issue for far too long, this recent momentum – with the inclusion of funding in the American Jobs Plan and in several bills moving in both the House of Representatives and the Senate – is a promising sign that action is near.

Read More »

Also posted in Drinking Water, lead / Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

Chemicals in hair products, making rent as a grad student, and more: A conversation with Dr. Tamarra James-Todd

Dr. Tamarra James-Todd’s interest in human health dates back to her childhood, when she would go into work with her mom, who was a microbiologist, on the odd weekend at the Kansas City VA Hospital. Now an epidemiologist at the Harvard Chan School of Public Health, Dr. James-Todd has focused her career on understanding the impacts of toxic chemicals on women’s reproductive and long-term health in order to improve overall health.

Dr. Tamarra James-Todd

Through her research, she has found that 50% of hair care products marketed to Black women contain hormone disrupting chemicals, compared to only 7% advertised to white women based on product label information. Further, the use of these products, such as hair oils and chemical straighteners, can put girls and women at higher risk of health impacts including earlier age at puberty—a risk factor for breast cancer. In addition to assessing racial and ethnic differences in chemical exposure, Dr. James-Todd’s research also includes identifying how pregnancy and complications that occur during this period can impact a woman’s risk of developing diabetes and cardiovascular disease.

I recently chatted with Dr. James-Todd about her work, how she got into the women’s environmental reproductive health field, and how COVID-19 has impacted her many research initiatives.

This conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Read More »

Also posted in Health Policy, Health Science, Markets and Retail / Comments are closed

What does “clean beauty” mean? New framework gives a path forward

This post originally appeared on EDF+Business. 

Alissa Sasso, Project Manager, EDF+Business.

Anyone who’s recently purchased a personal care item knows how overwhelming the experience can be. From price and aesthetics to brands, there are many factors to consider. Now add the safety and impact of the ingredients, whether or not it’s  “clean”, and the decision becomes more difficult.

The clean beauty industry has seen enormous growth, with projections estimating it will reach $11 billion by 2027. But the cosmetics industry has been underregulated for so long, there is no standard definition of “clean”. Brands and retailers entering this market therefore have flexibility to use the term “clean” to their own discretion.

Following a new roadmap, brands that are either creating a clean beauty program, or strengthening already-existing “clean” shops and labels, can use their influence to build a growing consensus around the use of the term to represent best-in-class. The roadmap provides guidance for companies on how to develop strong criteria for evaluating the health and environmental impacts of their products, prioritize ingredient safety and champion meaningful transparency in their clean beauty program.

Read More »

Also posted in Markets and Retail / Tagged , , , | Read 1 Response

An issue nearly everyone agrees on: It’s time to fund lead pipe replacement

Joanna Slaney, Legislative Director, and Sam Lovell, Project Manager.

As Congress looks to various infrastructure priorities in the coming months to get the country back on track, funding replacement of lead pipes should be an essential part of that effort. Recent polling from Black Millennials for Flint, BlueGreen Alliance and EDF demonstrates that there is strong bipartisan support for this initiative across party lines and regions of the country. Funding lead pipe replacement will protect health, create jobs, permanently improve water infrastructure, and reduce health inequities. It’s time for action.

And we are already seeing movement on this important issue, with legislation in the first few months of the new Congress in both the US House and Senate including lead pipe replacement as a key infrastructure priority.

Read More »

Also posted in Drinking Water, lead / Tagged , , , , | Comments are closed