According to a new study by the Food Packaging Forum, 175 chemicals with known hazardous properties are legally used in the production of food contact packaging in Europe and the U.S.
Food packaging and other materials coming in contact with food (e.g. foils, cans, pans, storage containers) continuously release mixtures of synthetic substances into food at low levels, which are then ingested by the consumer on a daily basis.
Many of the 175 substances identified are classified as carcinogenic, mutagenic, or reprotoxic. Others are considered to interfere with the hormone system, the so-called endocrine disruptors. A third group of chemicals is considered persistent and bioaccumulative.
The study, “Food contact substances and chemicals of concern: A comparison of inventories,” was published July 7 in the peer-reviewed scientific journal Food Additives and Contaminants, Part A.
Authors from the Food Packaging Forum identified the 175 substances by comparing two inventories of hazardous chemicals, the Substitute it Now! list and the TEDX list of endocrine disruptors, to publicly available databases of food contact substances.
Databases of food contact substances included the list of food additives authorized in the U.S. published by the Pew Charitable Trusts in 2013 (Neltner et al 2013), the European Food and Safety Authority’s (EFSA) ESCO Working Group list of non-plastic food contact substances, and Annex I of EC 10/2011, including plastic food contact substances authorized for use in Europe.
Among the 175 chemicals of concern are substances causing cancer or inflicting changes on the genes. Others affect an organism’s ability to reproduce, or they act as endocrine disruptors interfering with hormone signaling. In addition, the list contains toxic chemicals that accumulate in the environment or the human body.
Phthalates, which are widely used as plasticizers, are one prominent example for endocrine-disrupting chemicals that may lead to male infertility, genital malformations and cancer. Benzophenones and organotin compounds add to the list of endocrine-disrupting chemicals used in printing inks and coatings of food contact materials.
“From a consumer perspective, it is certainly undesirable and also unexpected to find chemicals of concern being intentionally used in food contact materials,” the study’s authors stated.
The majority of the 175 chemicals of concern identified in the new study fulfill the criteria of “Substances of Very High Concern” (SVHC) based on the EU chemical regulation REACH. Although only 21 of the 175 chemicals have been officially recognized as SVHC by the European Chemicals Agency, a total of 96 chemicals were identified as fulfilling the official REACH criteria for SVHC by the non-governmental organization ChemSec; they are listed on the Substitute It Now! (SIN) list.
SVHCs are supposed to be properly controlled and progressively replaced by less-hazardous alternatives under REACH. This includes a two-step regulatory process aiming at the phase-out of SVHCs. Nevertheless, chemicals used in the manufacture of food contact materials are not directly affected by this phase-out because they are regulated separately.
“As a consequence, chemicals with highly toxic properties may legally be used in the production of food contact materials, but not in other consumer products such as computers, textiles and paints even though exposure through food contact materials may be far more relevant,” according to the authors of the study.