A recent study led by scientists from the Food Packaging Forum, ETH Zürich, and the Swiss Federal Institute of Aquatic Science and Technology has led to the development of a list of Food Contact Chemicals of Concern (FCCoC) that the researchers believe should be phased out immediately as part of the EU’s Chemical Strategy for Sustainability.

The research, published in the Journal of Hazardous Materials, set out to identify chemicals present in food contact materials like packaging that could potentially pose a threat to the health of humans and the environment. Overall, the researchers say that there are over 12,000 known chemicals used in the manufacturing of food contact materials, while a significant number of non-intentionally added substances (NIAS) – ranging from additives to cleaning agents to by-products of chemical reactions – remain largely unknown.

Some chemicals of concern have already been identified and targeted with legislation. This includes some Perfluoroalkyl and Polyfluoroalkyl Substances (PFAS), which have been restricted from non-essential use in the EU. There have been further calls to ban PFAS across all applications, even those deemed essential, due to their association with health conditions such as high cholesterol and certain cancers. While the strong chemical bonds of PFAS offer resistance to degradation and are effective as surfactants in packaging applications, Dr Jonatan Kleimark, senior chemicals and business advisor at Swedish NGO ChemSec, argues that the persistence of these chemicals in the environment and their adverse impacts on health mean that “it’s worth using the precautionary principle in this case”.

According to the research released today, specific focus on FCCoC has been limited due to the relatively recent introduction of the Chemical Strategy for Sustainability. The new research complied data from a range of sources, including databases such as the Food Contact Chemicals database, which is based on information from organisations like the European Chemicals Agency (ECHA) and the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Additionally, data from other organisations such as the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) was considered by the researchers, according to their methodology.

Overall, the Food Packaging Forum-led research suggests that there could be up to 388 chemicals of concern in food contact materials. This reportedly includes 352 substances that are known to be carcinogenic, mutagenic and toxic to reproduction, which means that they can cause cancer, alter DNA, and be harmful to reproductive systems, sometimes resulting in birth defects.

In addition, the researchers list 22 endocrine-disrupting chemicals, which interfere with the regulation of hormones, as FCCoCs. The researchers also identified 32 chemicals used in food contact materials that apparently present persistence- and bioaccumulation-related hazards, meaning that they can build up in the environment as, in many cases, their strong chemical bonds do not readily break down.

Some food contact materials demonstrated a higher presence of chemicals of concern, the researchers claims. The highest number of FCCoC were reported in printing inks, with around 238 substances found for this application, according to the researchers. Plastics and paper and board also ranked highly in terms of FCCoC content, with the researchers saying that both mateiral types could contain over 160 hazardous substances each based on the dataset.

However, the research also found that the majority of FCCoC were used in more than one food contact material type. The researchers identified 96 FCCoCs that were used to manufacture five or more different types of food contact materials.

Another significant finding of the research is that monomers, the building blocks of plastic polymers, allegedly do migrate from the finished food packaging – refuting previous assumptions on the contrary. The researchers say that they targeted monomers as, depending on polymer type and the polymerisation process, they can account for up to 4% by weight in the final material.

According to the researchers, 30 of the listened FCCoCs are monomers, such as acrylamide and styrene (used to make polystyrene). The researchers claim that 22 of these monomers were detected to migrate into food or a food simulant, which suggests that they can transfer into food that is then ingested by humans. Notably, almost all of the monomers that showed evidence of migration in the research are considered carcinogenic, mutagenic and toxic to reproduction.

The group also cautions that there are likely to be more FCCoC than identified by the list, but adds that “absent hazard classifications” make these difficult to collect data on. However, the researchers say that the 388 identified FCCoCs on the list are actionable already and must be prioritised for phasing out of food contact materials immediately.

Jane Muncke, managing director of the Food Packaging Forum, explains: “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.

“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.”

The Food Packaging Forum says that the prioritisation of the FCCoCs identified in the research will allow manufacturers and researcher to improve the safety of food contact materials. The researchers state that its list of FCCoC should not be permitted for internal use in food contact materials. Therefore, the group urges the European Commission to consider the list while it currently undertakes revisions to regulations on food contact materials.

In terms of material sustainability, the researchers also note that note is an important time to reconsider the use of hazardous chemicals as the EU attempts to transition to a circular economy. For example, the researchers suggests that phasing out the identified FCCoCs from virgin materials will help to eliminate them from circulation, as they will not then be perpetuated through multiple recycling processes.

The EU’s Chemical Strategy for Sustainability and the Farm-to-Fork strategy are both aimed at ensuring that consumer products do not contain chemicals that are hazardous to food safety and public health, with a particular focus on ensuring that carcinogenic, endocrine-disrupting, or bioaccumulative substances are not present. The researchers conclude that the FCCoCs it lists must be phased out immediately for the EU to meet these ambitions, and that stronger enforcement of legislation is needed to prevent harm from hazardous substances in food contact materials.