The on-going food scare in Taiwan due to foods and beverages contaminated with a plasticizer known as Di(2-ethylhexyl) phthalate (DEHP) has once again raises alarm regarding the use of these chemicals for their unique functional properties. There are about 25 different phthalates to which modern man is exposed and some of them like DEHP.DINP, DNOP, DIDP,DBP and BBP are considered conspicuous by their presence in thousands of products with which humans come into contact. In fact about 10-40% of all plastics are made of one or the other phthalate and since to day's Society cannot live without plastics, exposure to phthalates is considered unavoidable.
Phthalates in plastics like Poly Vinyl Chloride ( PVC) provide clarity, increased flexibility, transparency, durability and longevity. DEHP, the most commonly used plasticizer, has become ubiquitous because of its low cost and easy availability. Considering that exposure to phthalates from many products used by humans, many countries are phasing out their use with plans to eliminate them eventually. Phthalates mimic human hormones and are considered endocrine disruptor if ingested at high levels, causing many diseases including chronic obesity, sexual abnormality, cancer, cardiovascular damage etc.
Though phthalates, being an excellent plasticizer, are not used by the food industry, their presence in unusual concentrations has been reported in some foods like milk and cheese and also water. DEHP with low vapor pressure is easily volatilized during the high temperature manufacturing process and these vapors are absorbed by the water and foods with high fat content. There are reports that milk and cheese are highly vulnerable to contamination by phthalates from the atmosphere and water. It is estimated that about 3.63 billion kg of DEHP are produced globally, used extensively by the plastic industry in making various products of day to day use and the danger posed by this chemical can be gauged by the cumulative exposure of human beings every day to theses products.
The Taiwan incidence has been traced to the use of DEHP by an ingredient manufacturer to make flavor concentrates for beverages as DEHP is an excellent emulsifier and provides cloudy appearance to beverages without separation or sedimentation. As a general rule clouding agents are not supposed to contain any of the phthalates including DEHP but the Taiwan party must have used it because it is one of the cheapest emulsifiers available in the market. It is unbelievable that the population in the US , the most industrialized nation in the world have high levels of phthalates in their blood, urine, saliva and exhaled air and what effects these chemicals have had on their health is any body's guess! In the US phtalates up to a level of 6 ppb is permitted in water though a total ban of these chemical is on the anvil in many countries including the US, Canada and European Union due to serious health concerns.
The entire food industry in Taiwan is likely to be engulfed in a worsening carcinogenic-additive crisis as a growing number of products have been found to contain DEHP which has set off panic among the consumers and unease in government circles. The food industry in that country is in shambles, affecting the reputation of many established players for no fault of theirs. Millions of food products have been recalled and the hemorrhaging is still continuing. Many countries have slapped a ban on Taiwanese made food products affecting the export economy very badly. Probably it may take many years for Taiwanese Food Industry to reclaim the reputation lost because of the DEHP tainting incidence. If this incidence can serve as a wake up call for many countries, regarding the importance of food safety, which must be enforced with an iron hand, Taiwanese pain would have served a purpose!