NEW YORK • A major paediatricians' group is urging families to limit the use of plastic food containers, cut down on processed meat during pregnancy and consume more whole fruit and vegetables rather than processed food.
Such measures would lower children's exposures to chemicals in food and food packaging that are tied to health problems such as obesity, the group says.
The American Academy of Paediatrics (AAP) issued the guidelines in a statement and scientific technical report yesterday.
The AAP joins other medical and advocacy groups that have expressed concern about the growing body of scientific evidence indicating that certain chemicals that enter foods may interfere with the body's natural hormones in ways that may affect long-term growth and development.
The paediatricians' group, which represents some 67,000 children's doctors in the country, is also calling for more rigorous testing and regulation of thousands of chemicals used as food additives or indirectly added to foods when they are used in manufacturing or leach from packaging and plastics.
Among the chemicals that raised particular concern are nitrates and nitrites, which are used as preservatives, primarily in meat products; phthalates, which are used to make plastic packaging; and bisphenols, used in the lining of metal cans for canned food products.
Also of concern to the paediatricians are perfluoroalkyl chemicals, or PFCs, used in grease-proof paper and packaging, and perchlorates, an anti-static agent used in plastic packaging.
NITRATES AND NITRITES
Used as preservatives, primarily in meat products
Used to make plastic packaging
Used in the lining of metal cans for canned food products
PERFLUOROALKYL CHEMICALS (PFCs)
Used in grease-proof paper and packaging
An anti-static agent used in plastic packaging
"The good news is there are safe and simple steps people can take right now to limit exposures, and they don't have to break the bank," said Dr Leonardo Trasande, the lead author of the statement and chief of the division of environmental paediatrics at New York University's School of Medicine.
"Avoiding canned food is a great way to reduce your bisphenol exposure in general, and avoiding packaged and processed food is a good way to avoid phthalates exposures," Dr Trasande said. He also suggested wrapping food in wax paper in lieu of plastic wrap.
Mr Jonathan Corley, a spokesman for the American Chemistry Council, a trade association, said: "Chemicals are critical to protecting the quality and integrity of food, help in the safe transportation and storage of food."
He said that many of the chemicals referred to in the AAP statement did not act as endocrine disrupters "in typical uses and at typical exposure levels", but he did not provide scientific references to support that contention.
Infants and children are particularly vulnerable to the effects of chemicals in food in part because they eat more food per pound of body weight than adults.
Perhaps more significantly, children's metabolic systems and key organ systems are still developing and maturing, so hormone disruptions can potentially cause lasting changes.
Child obesity in the United States has more than tripled since the 1970s, with nearly one in five children aged six to 19 considered obese, according to the Centres for Disease Control and Prevention.
It also noted the prevalence of developmental disorders in children increased from the 1990s to the mid-2000s; and that rates of diagnoses of both Type 1 and Type 2 diabetes among children and teenagers are also on the rise.
The AAP statement was particularly critical of a regulatory process by which the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) designates food additives "generally recognised as safe", citing a 2010 Government Accountability Office review of the programme that determined that "the FDA is not able to ensure the safety of existing or new additives through this approval mechanism".
An FDA spokesman, Ms Megan McSeveney, said the agency does not comment on specific statements or studies, but said that food safety "is at the core of the agency's mission to protect and promote public health for our nation's consumers".