Plastic food packaging and containers contain chemicals causing cancer, infertility, gene mutations

ZÜRICH, Switzerland — Plastic food packaging and containers can contain hundreds of chemicals which increase the risk of developing cancer, infertility, and gene mutations, a new study warns.

The wrappings had 388 individual “substances of concern,” including 352 known to be carcinogenic, mutagenic, and toxic to reproduction – which scientists call CMRs. Another 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 which are hazardous to human health can leach into foods under actual conditions of use, making them highly likely for human exposure.

The study refutes the common assumption that ingredients for the manufacturing of plastic polymers do not migrate from the finished packaging.

“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,” says lead author Dr. Jane Muncke, managing director of the Food Packaging Forum in Zurich, according to a statement from SWNS.

“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.”

package chems
(Credit: Journal of Hazardous Materials)

Dozens of chemicals leaking into food

The Swiss team compiled the List of Food Contact Chemicals of Concern (FCCoC) by rigorously analyzing those used in packaging. It will help with implementing the EU initiatives Farm to Fork and Chemicals Strategy for Sustainability. Furthermore, prioritization allows manufacturers and researchers to improve safety for consumers.

“Among the 30 monomers included in the FCCoC list are well-known plastic monomers such as acrylamide which is polymerized 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,” researchers write in the Journal of Hazardous Materials.

“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,” the team writes.

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.

“Our study shows that 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 according to the CSS and should be phased out from FCMs,” the study authors continue.

“These FCCoCs include CMRs, EDCs, chemicals with persistence-bioaccumulation-related or persistence-mobility-related hazards, and chemicals included in the REACH SVHC list due to their toxicity to specific target organs”

1 in 3 plastic products contain food

Estimates put global plastic production at around 367 million metric tons in 2020, with more than a third connected to food. There are concerns chemicals can leach into foods and the environment during manufacturing, use, disposal, and recycling.

“Our study shows that a wide variety of CMRs is potentially used in food packaging. 352 CMRs have been listed for use in the manufacturing of FCMs,” researchers write in their report.

“Of these, 135 were classified by ECHA as category 1 carcinogens, which recognizes them as known or presumed human 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 plasticizer or diluent for epoxy resins and 5-methyl-o-anisidine used in the manufacturing of dyes,” they add.

“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 molds, flame retardants to increase fire resistance and plasticizers to increase flexibility, dyes, and adhesives.

“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,” study authors conclude.

South West News Service writer Mark Waghorn contributed to this report.

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