Hazardous chemicals in food packaging declared a ‘global health threat’

By Flora Southey contact

- Last updated on GMT

©GettyImages/MJ_Prototype
©GettyImages/MJ_Prototype

Related tags: Packaging, Chemicals, REACH, Food packaging

Environmental and public health groups have declared a ‘global health threat’ following warnings that chemicals in single-use plastic and food packaging jeopardise human and planetary health.

Food packaging helps to conserve, protect, and transport food, and can be used to communicate important information to consumers.

However, food packaging and food contact articles, such as storage containers and processing equipment, can contain hazardous chemicals.

According to a team of 33 international researchers, there is ‘clear scientific evidence’ that chemicals migrate from food contact articles, and it is ‘likely’ that most of the human population is affected by these exposures.

‘Known hazardous chemicals are authored for use in food’

In a consensus statement​ published earlier this month, the scientists detailed concerns regarding the presence, and consequent migration of, hazardous chemicals used in such products.

“We are concerned that current chemical risk assessment for food contact chemicals does not sufficiently protect public health,” ​they noted.

Further, while several thousands of chemicals are intentionally used to make food contact articles, toxicity and exposure information is available for ‘only a few’ of those used internationally.

Known hazardous chemicals are authorised for use in food contact, they continued, adding that there is a ‘potentially large’ burden of risk placed on citizens who are unknowingly ingesting mixtures of chemicals originating from packaging and related products.

“Therefore, we urge policymakers, regulators, food and food packaging manufacturers, civil society and scientists from within the food contact materials world, and outside, to address more attention to the issue of assessing the safety of food contact chemicals, as it appears to be an important opportunity for prevention of chronic diseases associated with hazardous chemical exposures.”

Efforts to contribute to the circular economy have also raised concerns, according to the researchers. Innovative food packaging technology, which allows for reusing, recycling, or replacing plastic food packaging with alternative materials, often ‘omit considerations of chemical safety’, they noted. “This may lead to regrettable substitutions that cause problems later.”

A call to action

The consensus statement has attracted support from nearly 200 environmental and public health organisations who have declared migrated hazardous chemicals in food packaging a ‘global health threat’.

These not-for-profits have signed a Call to Action​ led by the UNWRAPPED Project. The project is coordinated by UPSTREAM, Zero Waste Europe and GAIA, and aims to raise awareness about the health risks of migrated chemicals from packaging.

In the Call to Action, they demand that regulators and industry protect public health and environment by acting to:

  • Ensure that all chemicals used in food packaging are fully traced and disclosed;
  • Eliminate harmful chemicals in all food packaging and prevent regrettable substitutions; and
  • Adopt policies that support the transition towards safe, reusable, and refillable packaging.

Signatories include WWF Portugal, Food & Water Europe, Zero Waste Europe and Surfers Against Sewage.

According to Zero Waste Europe, regulatory measures are ‘urgently needed’. “Our current system of production and distribution of food and its packaging puts at risk the health of people who don’t even have access to information on the chemicals present in food packaging,” ​said the not-for-profit’s consumption and production campaigner Justine Maillot.

“Regulators must take immediate measures to eliminate hazardous chemicals from food packaging and ensure a transition to make it toxic-free and reusable. This is urgently needed to protect both human health and the environment – and allow a clean circular economy.”

In the US, former Director of the NIEHS and the National Toxicology Program, Linda Birnbaum, similarly voiced her support for action.

“Families want to put food on the table that supports their children’s health and wellbeing. But it’s next to impossible to find options that aren’t wrapped in food packaging containing chemicals that represent a significant threat to human health.

“Current safety evaluations fail to consider impacts of very low dose exposures on the endocrine system and this puts children at the greatest risk of harm.”

Source:Environmental Health
‘Impacts of Food Contact Chemicals on Human Health Consensus Statement’
Published 3 March 2020
DOI: https://doi.org/10.1186/s12940-020-0572-5​ 
Authors: Muncke, J., Andersson, A., Backhaus, T. et al.

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