On February 18, 2020, The Guardian published an article providing an introduction to knowns and unknowns surrounding the safety of chemicals in plastic food containers. After referring to a few well-known chemicals (e.g., bisphenol A (BPA; CAS 80-05-7) and phthalates), the article references the Chemicals in Plastic Packaging database (CPPdb) that was one main outcome of the Food Packaging Forum’s Hazardous Chemicals in Plastic Packaging (HCPP) project. This database contains more than 900 chemicals likely associated with plastic packaging production as well as an additional 3,400 chemicals that are possibly used, many of which were found to be lacking hazard data (FPF reported). Non-intentionally added substances (NIAS) are also introduced as an additional subset of unknown chemicals that can exist in packaging. Jane Muncke from the Food Packaging Forum explained that “the complex chemistry needed to make plastics makes it hard to know exactly what other chemicals are found in plastic food containers” and that not even the packaging’s manufacturers themselves “know exactly what the chemical composition is of the materials of their product down to the last little molecule.” A study published last year investigated the toxicity of chemicals in a variety of consumer plastic packaging on cells and found that some were toxic although not identified (FPF webinar).

The Guardian’s article goes on to discuss the testing process for food containers under US law. It explains that manufacturers have the responsibility to properly label the safe conditions of use for the packaging they produce. However, regardless of the labeled safe use, “experts caution that heat and plastic don’t mix well” and can lead to increased chemical migration out of the container and into the food. Food additive expert and independent consultant Maricel Maffini further explained that under US law “once a chemical or mixture or polymer is approved, it is there forever. There is no reassessment or look back to whether what was considered safe in 1962 is still safe now based on advances in scientific knowledge or exposure to that particular compound in the population.”

“None of us [scientists] are arguing that each and every one of these chemicals are by themselves toxic. We’re not trying to take ourselves back to the 1700s,” said Leonardo Trasande from New York University’s Grossman School of Medicine. “There needs to be new science, and there needs to be requirements for disclosing what chemicals are used.” The article concludes by providing readers with a set of recommendations to minimize chemical migration from plastic packaging at home (also see the FPF Fact Sheet).

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Lauren Zanolli (February 18, 2020). “Are plastic containers safe for our food? Experts say it’s hard to know.” The Guardian