Article Author: Rachel Katcoff, Psychology & Public Health Major, Class of 2023, POB Science Translator

Plastic packaging has always harbored many chemicals that can leach into products, and come in contact with the consumer. The effects have more recently been brought to light through peer-reviewed science. Although legislation may proclaim that these harmful substances are prohibited in our products and packaging, there are still many chemicals that are contaminating the items you find on the grocery store shelves. Thanks to the European Union’s Registration, Evaluation, Authorization and Restriction of Chemicals (REACH) regulation since 2006, research and review has increased significantly from there.

In Europe, the Commission Regulation was created to protect citizens from being exposed to toxic chemicals, enforcing a list of “authorized monomers” that may be included in plastic packaging. However, this legislation has not accounted for the non-intentionally added substances (NIAS) that find their way into the products during the manufacturing process. Once contaminated with these chemicals, the plastic packaging may taint the product and expose the consumer who is ingesting it.

As the European Union works toward being more environmentally friendly in its recycling efforts, a big concern is the risk of further production of wasteful plastic products and the continuation of exposure to the chemicals present in widely used plastic packaging. While only 6% of the plastic used in Europe is recycled, there has recently been an effort to increase the number of recycled plastics. A widely used example of recycled plastic has been recycled, low-density polyethylene (LDPE). This is a material that is highly desirable in the market, as its flexibility and durability are ideal for making items like plastic bags. While this product is very convenient in package production, it is also one of the easiest for harmful chemicals to attach themselves to.

In a 2021 study of LDPE, Pablo Miralles found 83 substances that were able to be identified within plastic materials. Out of these 83 substances, only 12 of them were found to be in compliance with the European Union’s list of unauthorized substances of Commission Regulation. Most of the identified substances were polymer additives, chemicals added to polymer-based products that improve their general quality and durability. Many other additives that had cosmetic, industrial, and mechanical uses were identified as well.

While the findings of this study are concerning, there are steps that we can take to limit our exposure to these chemicals, simply by limiting our plastic usage. Avoiding plastic packaging is the most effective way to stay clear of the chemicals that it holds. Using reusable items, like glass or ceramic containers is a great way to avoid plastic alternatives. However, if you do find yourself buying products in plastic containers, keep away from those with the recycling numbers #3, #6, and #7, even if they claim to be “recycled plastics.” While you may believe that you are still doing a positive service to the environment by purchasing these products, you are in turn negatively affecting your health. With these tips in mind, you can continue living your life in a safer, healthier way.

It is critical to make sure that the plastic products you use in your everyday life are safer. After all, if you are exposed to a harmful plastic packaged product, it can expose your food and, in turn, expose you. However, there are ways to decrease this exposure in your everyday life. If possible, check the ingredients of your plastic products. Do not be fooled by products claiming they are “the better choice” just because they are made from recycled plastic. As we saw through this study, recycled plastics can be just as harmful as any other plastic product.

Source: Miralles, P., Yusà, V., Pineda, A., & Coscollà, C. (2021). A fast and automated strategy for the identification and risk assessment of Unknown Substances (IAS/nias) in plastic food contact materials by GC-Q-orbitrap HRMS: Recycled LDPE as a proof-of-concept. Toxics, 9(11), 283. https://doi.org/10.3390/toxics9110283

Disclaimer: The information provided herein is the author’s opinion. Our authors are not scientists. We are not providing medical advice, but simply sharing publicly available information. When we reference data and databases, we do so with the caveat that most are only as good as the data they are based on. While POB strives to make the information as timely and accurate as possible, we make no claims, promises, or guarantees about the completeness, or adequacy of the contents of any site that is shared, and expressly disclaims liability for errors and omissions in the contents of these sites. POB goes to great lengths to avoid declaring shared products as “safe” as there is no legal definition of the word “safe” at this time.

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