Plastic food packaging and containers can contain hundreds of chemicals that cause cancer, infertility and gene mutations, according to new research.
The wrappings had 388 individual “substances of concern” including 352 known to be carcinogenic, mutagenic and toxic to reproduction – dubbed CMRs.
A further 22 were hormone or endocrine-disrupting chemicals (EDCs) and 32 endanger health with persistence and ‘bioaccumulation’.
Peer-reviewed studies have demonstrated the presence of 127 of these molecules in food contact materials (FCMs).
Plastic particles or monomers known to be hazardous can transfer into foods under actual conditions of use – making them highly relevant for human exposure.
It refutes the common assumption that ingredients for the manufacturing of plastic polymers do not migrate from the finished packaging.
Lead author Dr Jane Muncke, managing director of the Food Packaging Forum in Zurich, said: “Our study provides scientific evidence that hundreds of harmful chemicals are lawfully used in FCMs in Europe today, and people are ingesting these hazardous chemicals with their food.
“We present here a ready-to-use list of priority chemicals that should immediately be phased out from use in food contact materials by policy makers.”
The Swiss team compiled the List of Food Contact Chemicals of Concern (FCCoC) by rigorously analysing those used in packaging.
It will help implementing the EU initiatives Farm to Fork and Chemicals Strategy for Sustainability.
Furthermore, prioritisation allows manufacturers and researchers to improve safety for consumers.
Dr Muncke said: “Among the 30 monomers included in the FCCoC list are well-known plastic monomers such as acrylamide which is polymerised to polyacrylamide, styrene used to make polystyrene, bisphenol A, a monomer in polycarbonate plastics, as well as vinyl chloride that is used to produce the polymer polyvinyl chloride.
“Of the 30 monomers with evidence for presence, 22 were detected to migrate into food or food simulant, demonstrating that monomers can transfer into food and become available for human exposure via ingestion of foodstuffs.
“Importantly, the majority of the monomers with evidence for migration are CMRs (20), while four are EDCs, and one monomer has persistence-bioaccumulation- related hazards.”
Chemicals such as bisphenol A and a number of phthalates – used to increase plastic’s flexibility, transparency and durability – have been restricted in Europe due to harmful properties.
Dr Muncke said: “Our study shows hundreds of hazardous chemicals may be intentionally used across FCMs.
“We identified 388 FCCs that are of high concern due to hazard properties considered harmful and should be phased out.
“These FCCoCs include CMRs, EDCs, chemicals with persistence-bioaccumulation-related or persistence-mobility-related hazards, and chemicals toxic to specific organs.”
Global plastics production was estimated to be 367 million metric tons in 2020 – with more than a third for food.
There are concerns chemicals can leach into foods and the environment during manufacturing, use, disposal and recycling.
Dr Muncke said: “Our study shows a wide variety of CMRs is potentially used in food packaging. 352 CMRs have been listed for use in the manufacturing of FCMs.
“Of these, 135 were classified as category 1 carcinogens based on evidence from humans or well-performed animal studies.
“Among these FCCoCs are for instance the monomer vinyl chloride and 1,2-dichloroethane, both of which are used for PVC production, styrene oxide used as a plasticiser or diluent for epoxy resins and 5-methyl-o-anisidine used in the manufacturing of dyes.
“Another CMR listed for use in more than ten FCM types is epichlorohydrin, which is used as monomer for epoxy resin production but also listed for intentional use in several other FCMs including textiles, adhesives, and printing inks. Epichlorohydrin is a presumed carcinogen.”
The hazardous chemicals identified are not only used as the main ingredient, or monomer, to produce the plastic packaging but are also used for a range of functions from biocides to prevent moulds, flame retardants to increase fire resistance and plasticisers to increase flexibility, dyes and adhesives.
Added Dr Muncke: “Chemicals included in the FCCoC list should be considered for immediate phase-out from intentional use in FCMs, and finished FCAs should be screened for FCCoCs that may be present non-intentionally.”
The study is in the Journal of Hazardous Materials.