Chemicals in Popular Cereals' Packaging Made People Sick, Recalled

Posted on Aug 11, 2010 in Health & Wellness

by Anne Hart

There are too many gaps in the nation’s food safety programs. For example, is the chemical compound, methylnaphthalene (methyl-NAP-tha-lene) found in many types of cereal packaging making you feel ill? According to the July 12, 2010 Environmental Working Group article, “Kellogg’s Cereal Recall: Health Risks from Packaging?” it is.

The Sacramento Bee ran an article in the health section on the front page today, August 3, 2010, by Lyndsey Layton of the Washington Post “On chemical risks, EPA often in dark: Cereal Recalls Show Lack of Data on Food Hazards.” The big problem is the chemical methlynapthalene in the packaging of major brand cereals. Also see the Aug 2, 2010 Washington Post article, “U.S. regulators lack data on health risks of most chemicals.” 

Methylnapthalene contamination in cereal raises safety questions. The chemical is structurally similar to naphthalene, which was the primary component in mothballs until those products were reformulated due to toxicity concerns.

Naphthalene and methylnapthalene share the same toxicity to lung cells. Naphthalene is also toxic to red blood cells, causing anemia, fatigue, nausea, vomiting and diarrhea (ATSDR 2005). The methylated form of the mothball chemical has not been fully assessed for toxicity to blood cells, a critical data gap when it comes to evaluating the potential effects of food contamination. The National Library of Medicine’s Hazardous Substances Data Bank lists these symptoms as a concern for workers exposed to methylnapthalene (NLM 2010).

The San Antonio Budget Grocery Examiner reported that consumers affected by the contaminated cereal typically experienced nausea and/or vomiting within 15 minutes of ingesting the cereal (King 2010). Kellogg’s attributed these effects to some individuals’ increased susceptibility to the chemical’s smell and odor (Kellogg’s 2010).

Both the company and the FDA have an obligation to follow up. It is vital that we know how the chemical made its way into the cereal boxes and what is known about the safety of this compound for children in particular, since the recalled cereals are especially popular among them.

The recalled cereal included 28 million boxes of Froot Loops, Apple Jacks, Corn Pops, and Honey Smacks. When consumers reported the strange taste and odor and the symtpoms, nausea and diarrhea, teams of experts the companies hired “determined that there was no harmful material” in the cereals.

It’s the consumer who can tell you whether somethings leaking out of the inner packaging into the cereal more than experts. Why? Because the consumer eats the cereal. Federal regulators don’t even know about the suspected chemical, 2-methylnapthalene. The FDA still has no scientific data on how human health is affected by this chemical compound.

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) also doesn’t have health and safety data for this compound. According to the Sacramento Bee article (reprinted from the Washington Post), the EPA has tried to get this information from the chemical industries for the past 16 years. That’s why it’s really up to you, the consumer to serve whole foods that you make from scratch. When you buy processed foods, it’s a crap shoot as far as you’re concerned whether the packaging is leaking chemicals into the food or whether the food is safe.

Sure, at least the cereal has been recalled. But the consumer’s position to examine is why are there such gaps? Can you blame the gaps on the economy, lack of resources, money, staff or time? Cereals are consumer products that are eaten frequently, sometimes advertised widely, and appeal to kids and parents looking for quick meals that attract the taste of kids for sweetened cold cereals.

Maybe it’s time to cook or soak some whole oat groats from scratch and get back to foods that are not processed. Maybe the expression “eat like a horse” isn’t so far-fetched. Check out the Toxic Control Act of 1976. It exempts from regulation about 62,000 chemicals in commercial use, including 2-methylnapthalene.. The Sacramento Bee article (from the Washington Post) also mentions that certain chemicals “developed since the law’s passage do not have to be tested for safety.”

Do the companies really volunteer information? It’s time for consumers in Sacramento to keep aware of food recalls, but at the same time, check out the possibility of including more whole foods made from scratch, especially in diets aimed at kids. Who really eats Froot Loops or Corn Pops? Mostly, those types of cereals appeal to kids.

And it’s the parents who introduce sugary cereals to kids for convenience, to save time and to get kids eating something they are going to gravitate to by the habit of using sweets to lure kids to eat breakfast. Check the sugar and sodium content of all those popular brands from among the recalls.

Maybe it’s time to introduce kids to more fruit and whole grain cereals, or if they can’t have grains, other breakfast options prepared the night before that keeps them from having blood sugar level spikes and crashes throughout the day. Try foods lower on the Glycemic Index for a change.