Over 13,000 chemicals have been associated with plastic materials like polyethylene, polycarbonates, polystyrene and PVC. However, only 7,000 of these chemicals have enough data available to determine their human or environmental impacts – of which approximately 50% have one or more hazardous properties of concern.
The individual building blocks of plastics, called monomers, are also chemicals. When many monomers are put together, they are called a polymer, which is plastic. A wide range of chemical additives can be added to plastics, for example to soften plastic, colour it or make it less flammable.
- You can read all our blogs relating to Plastics and chemicals here.
Plastics and Endocrine Disrupting Chemicals (EDCs)
CHEM Trust has over 15 years of expertise of working on the environment and health impacts of Endocrine Disrupting Chemicals (EDCs), several of which are used in the manufacture of plastic products. Many EDCs are well-known contaminants in the environment and have also been found in people’s bodies.
EDCs are chemicals that can interfere with the endocrine system – the body’s sensitive chemical messaging system. In humans, exposure to EDCs has been linked to infertility & reproductive problems, obesity & diabetes, heart disease, and hormone related cancers, such as breast cancer, prostate cancer and testicular cancer.
Bisphenols are a group of chemicals used in the manufacture of polycarbonate (a clear and rigid plastic) and epoxy resin (a plastic adhesive used for the lining inside food and drink cans).
Most of the discussion about bisphenols has focussed on bisphenol A (BPA). Plastic products often made with BPA include bottles in water dispensers; plastic tableware; lenses for glasses; plastic sheeting for glazing and more.
The EU has restricted BPA in some products such as baby bottles and thermal paper for tickets and till receipts, and so some companies are now replacing BPA with other bisphenols (BPS, BPF) that are equally worrying – see our report ‘Toxic Soup’ for details.
According to the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA), the most up-to-date evidence suggests that all age groups are at risk of harmful effects as a result of bisphenol A in food. In April 2023, having reviewed over 800 scientific studies, EFSA proposed that the Tolerable Daily Intake of BPA, which is the level that can be ingested safely, should be 20,000 times lower than the previous temporary level set in 2015.
In response, the European Commission announced that it is preparing an initiative to ban BPA in food contact materials (FCMs), including in plastic and coated packaging. However, to avoid replacing BPA with other harmful substances the Commission must also address the use of other bisphenols.
Phthalates are a group of chemicals, several of which are used as plasticisers to soften the hard plastic PVC. Typical uses of such PVC include packaging, cables, flooring and roofing and more.
In the EU, eight phthalates are subject to authorisation under REACH. In July 2020 four phthalates (DEHP, DBP, DIBP and BBP) were restricted as a group in the EU in many consumer products due to their toxic effect on reproductive health and the endocrine system, particularly their impact on male fertility.
Until recently, the restriction did not prevent these chemicals from being used in food contact materials, such as conveyor belts and pipes used during food production, plastic gloves worn to handle food, and containers and wrapping used for food packaging. In November 2021, a new regulation was adopted in the EU requiring companies to apply for permission to use DEHP in food contact materials (FCMs), however, there are still many phthalates permitted in FCMs.
Another process potentially exposing consumers to hazardous chemicals in plastics is the recycling of old plastics into new ones, where the old plastic may contain chemicals that are already restricted or banned. This is a particular issue for phthalates in PVC plastics, and flame retardants in plastic toys and black plastics made using recycled electronics.
Chemicals in food contact materials
Plastic food contact materials – such as pipes in food factories or packaging – are also a concern. CHEM Trust has been highlighting that even when chemicals are identified as being of very high concern in the main EU chemicals law REACH, such as PFAS, their use in food contact applications is unaffected – see our Chemicals in Food Contact Materials page for more details.
Scientists have been ringing alarm bells over the presence of microplastics in our oceans, rivers and even drinking water. In response, the European Chemicals Agency (ECHA) investigated the issue and concluded that microplastics present a risk to the environment that is inadequately controlled. ECHA subsequently devised a restriction proposal under REACH for microplastics which are intentionally added to products, which was adopted in September 2023. However, for some uses, such as in cosmetics, there is a 12-year transitional period.
CHEM Trust has been calling for action on microplastics/a microplastics restriction for some time and responded to the initial “call for evidence on the use of intentionally added microplastic particles in products of any kind” in May 2018.
Biodegradable plastic alternatives
Biodegradable alternatives to plastics may have similar toxicity to conventional plastics, with similar types and amounts of chemicals of concern. Just like conventional plastics, they can persist in the marine environment for many years.
Global Plastics Treaty
In 2022, United Nations Member States agreed to begin developing a Global Plastics Treaty to end plastic pollution. The Treaty will incorporate measures to address plastic pollution at all stages of plastics’ life cycle. There have been several rounds of negotiations, which are ongoing, and have included discussion on the banning, phasing out and reduction of the production, consumption and use of chemicals in plastics.
A significant outcome of the May 2023 negotiations, was that the Chair of the Intergovernmental Negotiating Committee on Plastic Pollution was tasked with developing a first draft of the Treaty, which was published in September 2023. The draft text addresses chemicals of concern for human health and the environment and negotiations on the text are ongoing.
CHEM Trust’s collaboration on plastics
Hazardous chemicals in plastic packaging
From 2017-2019 CHEM Trust took part in a project on Hazardous Chemicals in Plastic Packaging with other NGOs and academic scientists based in Europe and the US. The scientists involved in the project compiled a database of Chemicals associated with Plastic Packaging (CPPdb).
For more information about the project read our blogs:
- “Hazardous chemicals in plastic packaging: an initial analysis”
- “Hazardous chemicals and plastic packaging: what are the concerns?”
- Hazardous chemicals in plastic packaging: how can we prioritise substances for action?
And our briefing:
Break Free From Plastic Movement
In September 2016, CHEM Trust signed the Global Vision for a Future Free of Plastic Pollution launching the international movement Break Free From Plastic (BFFP) and is a core member of the movement.
To find out more about plastics, chemicals and health please do visit these other sites:
Plastics and periods
Environmenstrual Factsheet – Women’s Environmental Network, 2023
Pollution from plastic production
How Plastic Production Harms Human Health, Environment, Economy – Food Packaging Forum, March 2023
Plastics and Health – Geneva Environment Network, October 2023
Plastics and Climate Change – GAIA, 2022
Chemicals in plastic toys
Flame Retardants in Electronics – Toxic Free Future
How to Choose Safer Toys – Toxic Free Future
Recycling of plastics
“Chemical Recycling” and Plastic-to-Fuel – GAIA, 2022
Beyond Recycling: Reckoning with Plastics in a Circular Economy – Center for International Environmental Law (CIEL), March 2022