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More than 170 toxic chemicals banned from European consumer products such as computers and textiles are still allowed for use in food packaging, according to a study conducted by researchers from the Food Packaging Forum and published in the journal Food Additives & Contaminants.
"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," researcher Jane Muncke, PhD, said. "From a consumer perspective, it is certainly undesirable and also unexpected to find chemicals of concern being intentionally used in food contact materials."
Cancer and hormone disruption
The researchers compiled a list of chemicals used in food packaging from a variety of sources, including the European Food and Safety Authority's ESCO Working Group list of non-plastic food contact substances and the authorized plastic food contact substances from Annex I of the European Union's Commission Regulation No. 10/2011. They then cross-referenced this list with the TEDX list of endocrine disruptors and the Substitute It Now! list of proven hazardous chemicals.
Of the chemicals legally approved for use in food packaging, at least 175 have been shown by scientific studies to be dangerous. Some of the chemicals have shown carcinogenic or mutagenic effects; some have shown toxicity to the reproductive system, and some have demonstrated hormone (endocrine) disrupting effects. In addition to being toxic, many of the chemicals persist in the environment and accumulate in the tissues of animals, including humans.
Among the toxic chemicals allowed in packaging are phthalates, used to soften plastics, which have been shown to produce cancer, genital deformity and male infertility. Other chemicals allowed in food packaging include perchlorate (a jet fuel additive that damages the thyroid gland), tributyltin (which harms the immune system) and even asbestos.
"We are especially concerned about chemicals that affect hormonal activity, known as endocrine disrupting chemicals, or ECDs," Dr. Muncke said. "These chemicals can lead to health effects later in life, like predisposition for obesity, diabetes, and cancer, and we don't know if there are safe exposure levels."
Toxics loophole exempts food products
There are many situations in which toxic chemicals could move from food, the researchers warned.
"Food contact materials (FCMs) are intended to be in contact with food during production, handling or storage," they wrote. "They are one possible source of food contamination, because chemicals may migrate from the material into the food."
Toxic chemicals in the study were identified as "Substances of Very High Concern (SVHC)" under the European Union's Registration, Evaluation, Authorisation and Restriction of Chemicals (REACH) regulation. Yet, due to a regulatory loophole, REACH regulations do not apply to food packaging.
"REACH currently covers consumer products but toys and things like that, but food is different, and we are saying why don't we bring it together so that we can have a regulation where chemicals used in food packaging would need similar notification before usage," Dr. Muncke said.
More than 6,000 chemicals are known to be used in food packaging, Dr. Muncke said, and many of them have not been tested for safety. Trade secrets legislation also protects manufacturers from having to reveal (or even knowing) the exact chemical composition of the packaging that they use for their products.
Nevertheless, the researchers called on manufacturers to voluntarily end the use of toxic chemicals in food packaging. In the meantime, consumers can protect themselves by purchasing more fresh, non-packaged food; storing food in glass, stainless steel or ceramic containers at home; and refraining from heating food in plastic, Styrofoam or coated cardboard.
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