An article in Chemical and Engineering News last week alerts us to the arrival of a new word. The word is "leachables," and it refers to any chemical that can leach out of a container or packaging and into whatever it's holding. If the word is not on your lips, it probably will be soon and perhaps literally so because "leachables" appears to be the next big buzzword, one that succinctly symbolizes a vexing dilemma of modern life.
According the article, virtually all forms of consumer product packaging from foil pouches and plastic sacks to juice boxes and asthma inhalers come with some level of risk that chemicals in the packaging will leach:
"Speak with anyone who produces, studies, or regulates packaging, and you will hear this point repeated: It is not a question of whether packaging components will leach into a product, it's a question of how much. 'If you have a material in contact with food, and if it's not completely inert -- and there are no completely inert materials -- something in the packaging will end up in the food,' says Dimitrios Spyropoulos, a regulator at European Food Safety Authority, told Chemical and Engineering News.
"The same holds true for pharmaceuticals. 'You will always have leachables,' says Guirag Poochikian, a retired U.S. Food & Drug Administration regulator who used to evaluate leachables from inhaler devices told the magazine. 'The question is "What are they, and what is their safety margin"' in humans?"
So there we have it: No matter what our food and drugs come packaged in, we're going ingest more than we bargained for. We can buy all the 100% pure organic whatever we want but what we put on our plate still won't be completely safe.
This is the inescapable fact of modern life: Our world invariably involves some degree of contact with substances that we'd choose to avoid if we could. We're simply living in an advanced civilization, and there's no such thing as a free and clear lunch, no matter what's on the menu. All of the things we enjoy, from iPods to prepared meals at the supermarket, come with some kind of high-tech (read: chemical) price tag, a trade-off we make for living in a world filled with what to any other generation would seem to be literal miracles.
To some extent, this is probably okay. If it's healthy and fed good fuel, the human body can handle a certain level of exposure to the by-products of living in the 21st century. An optimally tuned immune and detoxification system can deal with some amount of synthetic chemistry. We know this because none of us sicken and die when we eat a bowl of fruity tooties or drink a beverage that's a color not found in nature. What we can't deal with is an unrelenting onslaught. When our bodies are pummeled with wave after wave of newfangled chemical oddities, we eventually falter as our overwhelmed defenses drown in a toxicological flood. But the truth, for the most part, is that we're probably going to be able to survive the occasional encounter with an errant phthalate or a wayward molecule of BPA.
This tells us two essential things: First, we should use common sense to steer well away from obvious dangers like pesticides, chemical cleaners, and stain-proofed fabrics. There are natural alternatives we can easily substitute for these products and many more.
Second, we shouldn't spend a lot of time worrying about all the things we can't control. Unless we're willing to throw on bear skins and go live in caves lined with last year's leaf litter, there's probably always going to be a bit of this or that in our bodies. It's the unavoidable price we pay for expanding the boundaries of human possibility. And while we should always be working together to reduce and eliminate chemical threats, we shouldn't worry ourselves sick about it in the meantime.