Study reveals ‘unexpectedly high’ number of concerning substances in plastic products

Every year, more than 350 million tonnes of plastic – much of it used by the food industry – is produced worldwide. According to researchers at the ETH Zürich university in Switzerland, these plastics contain a huge variety of chemicals that may be released during their lifecycles — including substances that pose a significant risk to people and the environment. However, only a small proportion of the chemicals contained in plastic are publicly known or have been extensively studied.

A team of ETH researchers claims to have for the first time compiled a comprehensive database of plastic monomers, additives and processing aids for use in the production and processing of plastics on the world market, and systematically categorized them on the basis of usage patterns and hazard potential.

The team identified around 10,500 chemicals in plastic: 2,109 were used in food-contact applications; in packaging (2,489), textiles (2,429); some are for toys (522) and medical devices, including masks (247).

Of the 10,500 substances identified, the researchers categorized 2,480 substances (24%) as substances of potential concern. Amoung food-contact applications, 679 are substances of potential concern. 

Of of the 679 substances of potential concern amoung food-contact applications, the study revelealed there are:

  • 528 high-production volume chemicals, 434 not regulated chemicals, and 52 chemicals without any scientific references.
  • 9 are persistent and bioaccumulative, 120 are carcinogenic, 51 are mutagenic, 132 are toxic for reproduction, 300 are toxic for specific target organs, 404 are toxic for aquatic organisms, and 22 are endocrine disrupting
  • 119 substances of unknown or variable composition (UVCBs), 131 contain metals, 507 are (partially) organic, 13 contain silicon, 23 contain phosphor, 77 contain sulfur, and 92 contain halogens (like bromine, chlorine, fluorine, etc.)

Of the 2,109 chemicals that are used, there are:

  • 513 substances of unknown or variable composition (UVCBs), 402 contain metals, 1682 are (partially) organic, 69 contain silicon, 90 contain phosphor, 226 contain sulfur, and 214 contain halogens (like bromine, chlorine, fluorine, etc.)

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