CHEMICALS used for packaging, storing and processing food could damage people's health in the long term, experts have warned.

Cancer-causing substances and hormone disruptors are among thousands of chemicals leaching into food in tiny amounts, leading to "chronic" exposure over a lifetime, they said.

The environmental scientists warn that more needs to be done to fill gaps in knowledge about the long-term effects of exposure to food contact materials (FCMs).

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They said "acknowledged toxicants" are legally used in FCMs in Europe, the US and other parts of the world, including China. While some are regulated, too little is known about their long-term impact, they said.

There has also been little research on exposure to such chemicals at critical points in human development, such as in the womb and during early childhood, which is "surely not justified on scientific grounds".

Formaldehyde, a known cancer-causing substance, is present at low levels in plastic bottles and melamine tableware.

Exposure to EDCs in the womb could potentially lead to chronic disease in later life, the scientists said.

They said: "Consumers remain exposed to these chemicals daily, mostly unknowingly."

People who consume packaged or processed foods "are chronically exposed to synthetic chemicals at low levels throughout their lives".

The writers said the potential cellular changes caused by the chemicals are not being considered in routine toxicology analysis. This, they argue, "casts serious doubts on the adequacy of chemical regulatory procedures".

Jon Ayres, professor of environmental and respiratory medicine at the University of Birmingham, said the article was "alarmist".

He added: "There is no denying that lower doses of some substances ingested over long periods may in principle have a deleterious effect but the issue is how to recognise any such effects and then to quantify these effects."