Dangerous chemicals contained in food packaging may leach into food and may cause long-term harm to human health, scientists are warning.

In a commentary published in the Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health, a group of environmental scientists warn that the synthetic chemicals used in the packaging, storage and manufacturing of packaged and processed foods may even impact fetuses still growing in their mothers’ wombs.

The scientists note that because so-called “food contact materials,” or FCMs, are a “significant source of food contamination,” consumers are “chronically exposed to synthetic chemicals at low levels throughout their lives.”

And, they warn, too little is known about the exact impact synthetic chemicals have on human health, leaving consumers exposed to an unknown level of potential harm.

“FCMs are a new exposure source in the sense that they have received little attention so far in studies concerned with human health effects,” the scientists write.

“Their integration into epidemiological and non-epidemiological research is highly relevant. The dearth of epidemiological publications on FCMs is surely not justified on scientific grounds.”

In their commentary, the scientists say there are “several reasons” that lifelong exposure to FCMs is “cause for concern.”

For example, chemicals that are known to be toxic, such as formaldehyde, are present in FCMs, such as plastic bottles used for carbonated drinks and some tableware made of melamine.

Other chemicals that are known to impact hormone activity are found in FCMs, including bisphenol A, tributyltin, triclosan and phthalates.These chemicals are usually found in small amounts in FCMs, the scientists write. However, the number of synthetic chemicals in FCMs tops 4,000.

"Whereas the science for some of these substances is being debated and policy makers struggle to satisfy the needs of stakeholders, consumers remain exposed to these chemicals daily, mostly unknowingly," the authors point out.

The scientists write that although further study of these chemicals and their impact on the human body is needed, establishing a definitive link between the substances and disease will be difficult.

Scientists will be unable to compare subjects who have been exposed to the chemicals and those who have not, because most people have come in contact with these chemicals.

As well, study subjects will have been exposed to the chemicals to varying degrees.

However, it remains important that scientists determine whether there is a link between these chemicals and chronic illnesses, such as cancer, diabetes, obesity, neurological disorders and other ailments, they write.

"Since most foods are packaged, and the entire population is likely to be exposed, it is of utmost importance that gaps in knowledge are reliably and rapidly filled," the scientists conclude.

“Unravelling the role of FCMs in the development of chronic disease is of high scientific and public interest.”