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FPF continues campaign to identify hazardous chemicals in plastic packaging

By Jenny Eagle contact

- Last updated on GMT

FPF releases pre-peer review report on plastic packaging. Pic: krblokhin.
FPF releases pre-peer review report on plastic packaging. Pic: krblokhin.
The fight to eliminate hazardous chemicals in plastic packaging is not over with the Food Packaging Forum (FPF) submitting its latest research to the scientific journal ‘Science of the Total Environment’, this month.

Partnering with seven academic and non-profit organization partners in Europe and the US, the researchers have compiled a pre-peer review called Chemicals associated with Plastics Packaging database​ (CPPdb)​ identifying 4,283 substances and information on their toxicity and uses in plastic packaging, plus regulatory information on its use for food packaging.

Non-Intentionally Added Substances


Co-author Jane Muncke, MD, FPF, said the database lists hundreds of substances that are likely or possibly associated with plastic packaging that are used in manufacturing and/or present in final plastic packaging articles, including selected Non-Intentionally Added Substances (NIAS). 

Some of the substances in the CPPdb are known to be hazardous for environmental and/or human health, with harmonized hazard classification data available​,” the report states.

For some of the key hazardous chemicals identified in this study, more detailed analyses should be performed in the future, including an assessment of the availability of alternatives.

However, we faced numerous data gaps that hinder a comprehensive hazard and risk assessment of chemicals in plastic packaging​.”

The challenges the team came across was lack of access to information on how specific chemicals are used, or which chemicals are used in what application and in what quantities, and at which levels they are present in finished plastic packaging.

Insufficient information on chemicals’ use patterns prevents any scientific, exposure-based assessments, since filling these data gaps using a systematic, scientific approach is nearly impossible for anyone outside industry​,” said Muncke.

Two major challenges hamper the identification of chemicals associated with plastic packaging: The lack of publicly accessible comprehensive registries for chemicals used in plastic packaging and use restrictions for commercial data sources.  

She added reliable risk assessments should be based on actual data and not on estimates or assumptions so there is an urgent need for publicly available information on the use of chemicals in plastics, and the exact chemical composition of finished plastics articles.

Also, the chemical inventory-based approach taken in the study does not comprehensively address the issue of NIAS, since many of them remain unidentified and not risk-assessed as individual substances.

In the future, in vitro toxicity assays could be used to test the safety of finished packaging articles​,” she said.

MAVA foundation 

Work on the CPPdb was financed by a grant from MAVA foundation and FPF is funded by unconditional donations and project-based grants.

CPPdb report findings:

  • Many chemicals are associated with plastic packaging: the CPPdb contains 4,283 substances, but more chemicals may be intentionally used or present as NIAS. 
  • For 906 substances contained in the CPPdb, it obtained evidence for their use and/or presence in plastic packaging from publicly accessible records.
  • For a subset of 747 substances (17%), hazard data were available conforming to the Globally Harmonized System of Classification and Labelling of Chemicals​ (GHS).
  • 148 substances associated with plastic packaging are ranked as most hazardous for human health and the environment, based on their toxicity, including endocrine disrupting properties as well as a substance’s persistence and bioaccumulation potential.
  • The most hazardous chemicals identified in the CPPdb include 14 phthalates, additives often used as plasticizers in many different types of plastic packaging and with adverse impact on health.
  • Many data and knowledge gaps persist that hamper chemical risk assessment for plastic packaging: lack of information on the use of substances in plastic packaging, data on the levels of chemicals in final plastic articles, and lack of harmonized hazard data for most of the substances. 

One of the findings in the report was the use and presence of four hazardous metals - cadmium, hexavalent chromium, lead, and mercury - in packaging, which is regulated in the EU (EU, 1994) and 19 US states.

However, despite the regulations, toxic metals, especially cadmium, have been detected at levels exceeding the regulatory limits in some PVC packaging samples obtained from US retailers (Toxics in Packaging Clearinghouse, 2017; van Putten, 2011).

Most of the non-compliant packaging items identified in the US appeared to be imported, often from China. In other parts of the world, especially in developing countries, the use and presence of heavy metals in plastic packaging is either not regulated, or regulated insufficiently, or regulations are not properly enforced.

For example, PE bags in Uganda contain cadmium, chromium, cobalt and lead, and were found to contaminate food cooked in these bags, while in Brazil, lead was detected in some HDPE packaging samples.

Plastics beached on the shores of a fresh water lake in Europe or the Pacific ocean, most often composed of PVC, polyolefins, and PS, were also found to contain multiple heavy metals, including cadmium, mercury and lead.

Although plastics fragments are known to absorb metals present in the environment, some of the detected metals could in fact be “legacy” chemicals contained in the non-degraded plastics originating from the times before regulatory restrictions.

The CPPdb is considered a work-in-progress, with many data gaps still to be filled, and will be freely accessible on the Chemical Hazards Data Commons ​website where information can be contributed and discussed, e.g. on a substance’s use in plastic packaging or its toxicity data​,” added Muncke.  

148 hazardous substances associated with plastic packaging were identified from the database based on their hazard for human health and the environment. Importantly, severe data and information gaps exist with respect to the chemicals used in the manufacture of plastic packaging. In addition, plastic packaging can contain impurities, degradation products, and contaminants that cannot be exhaustively compiled because many of these chemicals are simply not known.

The researchers who carried out the study consulted both the harmonized CLP classifications (i.e. ECHA-assigned) and the advisory CLP classifications assigned by the Danish EPA based on in silico models. 

In addition, the team considered EU-accepted classifications as an EDC, PBT, or vPvB substance, and recognition as an EDC or a potential EDC in the 2018 UNEP report on EDCs (UNEP, 2018). The UNEP report recognizes three stakeholders and consequently the EDC assessments that they performed as “robust,” namely the REACH EDC classifications, the ChemSec’s assessments for SIN list, and the assessments by the Danish Centre for Endocrine Disruptors.  

In the end, it was able to identify 906 substances to be likely associated with plastic packaging in terms of being used during the manufacture of plastic packaging or being present in the final packaging articles.  


Report: Chemicals associated with plastic packaging: Inventory and hazards.

Publication:The Science of the Total Environment​.

Date:​ July 13, 2018

Author(s):​ Ksenia J. Groh, Thomas Backhaus, Bethanie Carney-Almroth, Birgit Geueke, Pedro A. Inostroza, Anna Lennquist, Maricel Maffini, Heather A. Leslie, Daniel Slunge, Leonardo Trasande, A. Michael.

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