EDF Health

FDA Says We Are All Made of Chemicals So How Can Any Be Bad For You?

By Maria Doa, PhD, Senior Director, Chemicals Policy, Maricel Maffini, PhD, Consultant, and Liora Fiksel, Project Manager, Healthy Communities


Woman reading product label in grocery store

What happened

You may have seen news or online content from FDA about chemicals in our foods, including that our food – and everything else in the world – is made up of chemicals.

FDA’s online content also characterizes toxic chemicals such as lead and mercury simply as naturally occurring or naturally present in our environment. It further fails to distinguish the most harmful chemicals by asserting that for all chemicals, it is the amount of the chemical that matters when determining their harm.

Why it matters

It is true that everything, including our food, is made up of chemicals. However, that does not mean that we should treat all chemicals equally.

Highly toxic chemicals such as lead, mercury, PFAS, TCE, methylene chloride, and BPA are examples of substances that should not be in our food. These toxic metals and synthetic chemicals do not have nutritional benefits and are not equivalent to the chemicals that make up the proteins, fats and carbohydrates that are necessary for a healthy diet. We should not be exposed to toxic chemicals at any level.

The suggestion that toxic metals and synthetic chemicals such as PFAS in our food are just chemicals like essential elements such as potassium in bananas is misleading and harmful.

Unfortunately, FDA accomplished just that. In a webpage released earlier last week, the agency tried to address worries about chemicals in food, an issue that consumers have been concerned about for several years. In its attempt to bring confidence about the safety of the food supply, FDA tried to normalize the presence of toxic chemicals, including neurotoxicants, carcinogens and endocrine disruptors, in our food.

Our take

If a toxic chemical such as lead or mercury is naturally occurring, is it OK?

No. While there are very low levels of these metals that are naturally present in our environment the majority of what is now in our environment is not natural background but the result of pollution and other contamination due to human activities. These levels are not “naturally occurring.”

It is also essential to recognize that naturally occurring does not equate with safety. There is no safe level of exposure to lead and mercury which are potent neurotoxicants. They are particularly harmful to infants and small children and exposure to even small amounts can cause harm.

Is there always a safe level of exposure to a chemical?

Treating all chemicals in our food the same way ignores the science. Some chemicals, in addition to lead and mercury, are so toxic that essentially any amount of exposure is of concern:

  • Chemicals like TCE associated with multiple types of cancers and harm pregnant women and infants.
  • Chemicals like PFAS also known as forever chemicals because they are so difficult to destroy that can harm pregnant women, cause cancer and harm the immune system in vanishing small quantities. For two of the PFAS, EPA just declared that there is no safe level of exposure.
  • Chemicals like BPA that harm the immune and reproductive systems, disrupts the normal function of hormones and affects learning and memory at levels 20,000 times lower than previously estimated, and
  • Chemicals like methylene chloride are associated with cancer and liver toxicity.
  • Chemicals like phthalates that also disrupt the normal function of hormones specially during development of the male reproductive tract. These chemicals are strictly limited in children’s toys due to their toxicity.

And being exposed to more than one of these chemicals that cause the same harm, such as cancer, can increase the harmful effects.

Further, Congress also recognized that some chemicals should not be allowed to be added to our food. Period. Congress included a provision known as the Delaney Clause in our food safety laws that states a food additive cannot be deemed “safe if it is found to induce cancer when ingested by man or animal.” Yet unfortunately, some carcinogens continue to be allowed.

How can we be assured of a safe food supply if the agency that is supposed to ensure safety takes the same “it’s the amount that matters” approach to these toxic chemicals as it does to salt?

And how can we have confidence that FDA will fully consider consumers in determining food safety when the agency not only falsely equates toxic chemicals with the chemicals that make up the proteins, fats and carbohydrates in our diet but also takes a patronizing approach to the public by stating that “chemical names may sound complicated but that does not mean they are not safe.”

Next steps

In the last several years, public interest organizations have petitioned FDA to review the safety of chemicals known to pose risk to health.  Many petitions are still unresolved.

FDA should recognize toxic chemicals for what they are – chemicals that can harm our health and well-being – rather than camouflage them just as any other chemical. The science and the law demand that in making decisions about food safety, FDA recognize and act on the most toxic chemicals and fully consider consumers in its decision making.


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EU gets ready to ban most BPA uses. Once again: Where’s FDA?

By Maricel Maffini, PhD, Consultant, and Tom Neltner, Executive Director, Unleaded Kids

Warning message written in bold red letters with words Bisphenol A Exposure. 3d illustration.

What’s Happening?

On February 9, 2024, the European Commission published a proposed regulation [PDF, 502KB] that would ban most uses of bisphenol A (BPA) in materials that contact food—including plastic and coatings applied to metal cans—and restrict other uses. Interested parties can comment on the draft until March 8, 2024. (You must register to comment.)

This proposed regulation is based on the 2023 European Food Safety Authority’s (EFSA) risk assessment of BPA that concluded that dietary exposures are a health concern. The proposed regulation would impact the following bisphenol-based food contact materials:

  • Plastics: Would be banned from use if made from BPA at any stage of manufacturing.1 The only exception is polysulfone resins made from a sodium salt of BPA, which are allowed for use in filtration membranes if there is no detectable migration into food.
  • Varnishes, coatings, printing inks, adhesives, ion-exchange resins, and rubbers: Use of BPA and bisphenol S (BPS)2 would be banned at any stage of manufacture. Use of BPS or other bisphenols may be authorized on a case-by-case basis. The exception to the ban is bisphenol-A diglycidyl ether (BADGE)3 made from BPA and used to make epoxy-based varnishes and coatings, which are allowed only in making materials with capacity of more than 250 liters and there is no detectable migration4 into food.
  • Recycled materials: Unintentional BPA contamination would be allowed if there is no detectable migration into food.

Why It Matters

In its 2023 reassessment, EFSA estimated that the amount of BPA that could be safely consumed daily is 20,000 times less than its 2015 estimate. Among the health problems associated with BPA exposure are harm to the immune and reproductive systems, disruption of the normal function of hormones and reduced learning and memory.

The draft rule would manage the risk of BPA uses to significantly reduce dietary exposure after considering alternatives that are technically feasible at a commercial scale.

Our Take

The European Commission’s proposed rule is an excellent example of a risk management decision that considers safety and achievability. The Commission balanced protecting human health by eliminating as many sources of BPA as fast as possible with the implementation challenges. The Commission has included transition periods to eliminate all uses of food-contact articles manufactured with BPA ranging from 18 months for final food packaging (e.g., plastics, can coating) to 10 years for repeat-use, final food contact articles used in food production equipment.

In a previous blog, we stated that Americans’ exposure to BPA from food is similar to that of Europeans. Unfortunately, FDA doesn’t share the same sense of urgency as the European Commission. While Europe is on track to ban most uses of BPA in food contact materials, FDA is failing to take action to protect our families.

EDF and our allies submitted a food additive petition [PDF, 542KB] asking the agency to limit BPA exposure from food by revoking approvals for using BPA in adhesives and can coatings and to setting strict limits on using BPA in plastic that contacts food. FDA filed the petition on May 2, 2022, and has not made a final decision on it, despite a 180-day statutory deadline. It is now more than 600 days overdue.


Once the rules are finalized, compliance would be required within 18 months for most products and within 36 months for:

  • Varnishes and coatings for processed fruit, vegetable, and processed fish products.
  • Varnishes and coatings used outside of metal packaging.
  • Manufacture of repeat-use components in professional food production equipment.

The rule would also allow repeat-use, final food contact articles used in professional food production equipment to remain in service for up to 10 years.

What’s Next?

We will submit comments to the European Commission seeking clarity on some aspects of the proposal. In addition, we will continue to press FDA to make a final decision on our petition, including potentially taking legal action for unreasonable delay in responding to it.

Go Deeper

Read our blogs on BPA.


1 The rule is inconsistent regarding status of plastics other than polysulfone. EDF will submit comments seeking clarity.

2 The Commission may expand to more bisphenols if they are added to Annex VI, Part 3 of Regulation (EC) No 1272/2008 due to their harmonized classification as category 1A or 1B “mutagenic,” “carcinogenic,” “toxic to reproduction” or category 1 “endocrine disrupting” for human health.

3 BADGE (CAS No 1675-54-3) – is a type of epoxy resin manufactured from BPA.

4 Rule defines the limit of detection as 0.01 milligram of bisphenol per kilogram of food.

Posted in BPA, EFSA, FDA / Tagged , , | Authors: / Comments are closed

Why are four notorious carcinogens approved by FDA for food?

By Liora Fiksel, Project Manager, Healthy Communities, and Lisa Lefferts, Environmental Health Consultant

Pregnant woman rests a cup of coffee on her belly.

While exposure data are scant, people who are choosing decaf coffee during pregnancy or for other health reasons may not realize that some popular brands contain methylene chloride.

What’s Happening?

On December 21, 2023, FDA filed a food-additive petition and a color-additive petition submitted by EDF and partners that asks FDA to revoke its approval for four carcinogenic chemicals approved for use in food.

There is broad agreement that benzene, trichloroethylene (TCE), methylene chloride, and ethylene dichloride are carcinogenic,1 and federal law2 is clear: additives that cause cancer in humans or animals are not considered “safe.” All the chemicals have been identified as causing cancer in humans or animals since the 1970s and 1980s.3 Read More »

Posted in Adverse health effects, Carcinogenic, Chemical exposure, Chemical regulation, FDA, Food, Health hazards, Public health, Vulnerable populations / Tagged , , , , , , | Authors: / Comments are closed

FDA’s latest study reaffirms short-chain PFAS biopersist. Now it must act.

By Maricel Maffini, PhD, Consultant, and Tom Neltner, JD

Female rat nursing multiple pups

FDA study found biopersistent PFAS in female rats and their pups,

What Happened

In December 2023, FDA’s scientists published a new study showing that when pregnant rats ingest a form of per- and polyfluorinated alkyl substance (PFAS) called 6:2 fluorotelomer alcohol (6:2 FTOH) their bodies break it down into other PFAS that reach the fetuses and biopersist in the mother and the pups.

The study also showed that the body of a non-pregnant animal produces different breakdown products that also biopersist. This study is the latest evidence that the assumptions made about the safety of short-chain PFAS (chemicals with fewer than 8 carbons) have been wrong. Read More »

Posted in Adverse health effects, Chemical regulation, Emerging science, FDA, Health science, Industry influence, Public health, Rules/Regulations, Vulnerable populations / Tagged , , , , , , , , | Authors: / Comments are closed

New updates to understanding packaging scorecard spur a safer & more sustainable foodservice industry

Posted in BPA, Food, Food contact materials, Food packaging, Markets and Retail / Tagged , , , | Authors: / Comments are closed

EPA’s new chemical regulations: Industry bias must be fixed

By Maria Doa, PhD, Senior Director, Chemicals Policy, and Colin Parts, Legal Fellow

NOTE: This is the fourth in a series about EPA’s regulation of new chemicals. See below under Go Deeper for links to the other blogs in the series.

A robotic-looking hand pushes down on the right side of a balance scale to unfairly influence the measurement.

What Happened?

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) recently proposed new regulations for its safety reviews of new chemicals under our nation’s primary chemicals law, the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA). One of these proposed provisions would govern how EPA can change the restricted approvals it issues for new chemicals that may pose unreasonable risks. EPA’s proposed approach would limit the type of stakeholders involved and the potential for stronger chemical regulations.

Read More »

Posted in Chemical regulation, Conflict of interest, Industry influence, Rules/Regulations, TSCA / Tagged , , , , | Authors: / Comments are closed