≡ Menu

Will you be using toxic napkins at Christmas?

The weather is cooling down, Christmas street lights are switched on, New Year’s Eve celebrations are being prepared… It is the season to get merry and enjoy dinners with family and friends. You will probably use Christmassy paper napkins to decorate your table or to wrap slices of cakes and other sweets. However, what you probably don’t know is that these nice coloured paper napkins may transfer carcinogenic chemicals into your food.

You may wonder “How is this possible? EU regulations are meant to protect people’s health by controlling the use of chemicals in food packaging“. However, CHEM Trust has been highlighting for over 3 years that the EU’s system for regulating the use of chemicals in food contact materials (FCMs) is full of holes.


Carcinogenic substances in your paper napkins

Primary Aromatic Amines (PAAs) are a group of chemicals used in the manufacture of some printing inks. Many of them are carcinogens (they can cause cancer) and they can remain as residues in the final inks. If these inks are used on food contact materials – such as napkins or bakery bags – PAAs may leach into food.

After concerns that PAAs were escaping from  kitchen utensils (including in the UK), a 2016 study by the EU Commission’s Joint Research Centre analysed coloured paper napkins bought on the European market. This study found that almost half of the napkins tested leached PAAs, and that:

“About 50% of the detected PAAs are considered toxic, carcinogenic or probably carcinogenic to humans. […] The present study shows that coloured paper napkins can release carcinogenic PAAs”

Not only did they find that a large proportion of napkins leached these toxic substances, but also the quantities of PAAs leaching out of some napkins were surprisingly high. For seven napkins, the total concentration which leached out exceeded the acceptable level permitted in plastic packaging, with over 0.01 milligrams per kilogram (mg/kg) of food. The highest levels were found in red, multi-colour, yellow and orange napkins.

The German Federal Institute for Risk Assessment (BfR) has recommended that rather than using this current 0.01 mg/kg limit for PAA leaching from plastics, there should be a much lower migration limit of 0.002 mg/kg of food; this is also the limit proposed in Germany’s draft legislation on inks used in food contact materials.

Regulatory deficiencies

Last year, Members of the European Parliament called on the European Commission to improve the regulation of chemicals in food contact materials, materials ranging from napkins to pizza boxes and pipes in food factories, in order to better protect people’s health. CHEM Trust have been highlighting our concerns with the regulations in this area since summer 2014, see our page on Food Contact Materials for details. We’ve also highlighted the EU Commission’s lack of transparency regarding the regulation of FCMs.

The European Commission has recently started a review of the EU’s laws on chemicals in food contact materials (it is currently consulting on a Roadmap for this review). In addition, in early 2017, the EU Commission committed to developing a new EU-wide regulation of printed food contact materials (which should cover coloured paper napkins), though they haven’t yet released a draft proposal.

Dr Michael Warhurst, CHEM Trust’s Executive Director, said:

“It is shocking that known carcinogenic chemicals have been found to leach from paper napkins; this is not acceptable.

It’s time that the EU sorted out their regulation of chemicals in food contact materials so that they really protect the public. The current approach dates back to 1976, and is clearly ineffective and outdated.”

What can you do about it?

  • Don’t use napkins to store food (e.g. to wrap cake slices) – particularly, as the BfR statesprinted paper packagings or napkins (colour range yellow-orange-red)“.
  • Write to your government to ask them what they are doing to improve the regulation of chemicals in food contact paper, card and ink.