Potential hazard of chemicals used in plastic manufacturing, including food contact materials

More than 350 million tonnes of plastic are manufactured worldwide every year, and much of it is utilized in the food sector. According to experts at the ETH Zürich university in Switzerland, these plastics contain a wide range of compounds that may be released over their lifecycles, including ones that represent a significant risk to humans and the environment. However, only a tiny percentage of the compounds included in plastic are widely recognized or have undergone considerable research.    

A group of ETH researchers created a complete database of plastic monomers, additives, and processing aids for use in the manufacture and processing of plastics on the global market, and then systematically classified them based on usage patterns and hazard potential. They identified about 10 500 compounds in plastic, 2 109 of which were utilized in food-contact applications. Furthermore, they classified 2 480 compounds (24 %) of the 10 500 identified as potentially hazardous. When it comes to chemicals of potential concern in food-contact applications there are 679 of them.    

The study revealed that among the 679 chemicals of possible concern in food-contact applications there are:    
• 528 chemicals having a large manufacturing volume, 434 compounds that are not controlled, and 52 chemicals with no scientific references;  
• 9 are persistent and bioaccumulative, 120 are carcinogenic, 51 are mutagenic, 132 are reproductively toxic, 300 are harmful to specific target organs, 404 are hazardous to aquatic species, and 22 are endocrine disruptive;
• 119 compounds of uncertain or variable composition (UVCBs), 131 of which include metals, 507 of which are (partially) organic, 13 of which have silicon, 23 of which contain phosphor, 77 of which contain sulfur, and 92 of which contain halogens (like bromine, chlorine, uorine, etc.).  

Surprisingly, despite having extremely problematic hazardous characteristics, the report claims that 901 compounds of concern exist on regulatory positive lists for use in food-contact plastics, with 225 of them authorized in the EU. In sum, 53 % of all possible concern chemicals are not controlled in the United States, the European Union, or Japan.  

Furthermore, about 350 chemicals of potential concern appear on both negative (e.g. authorization required for certain uses and prohibitions in particular applications) and positive regulatory lists (e.g. approval for use in food-contact plastics). For instance, while dibutyl phthalate (CASRN 84-74-2) requires authorization in the EU and Republic of Korea, it is allowed for use in food-contact plastics in the EU, US, and Japan. The researchers depict through this that there is significant regulatory inconsistency that should be properly addressed.