Environmental groups and scientists, including the former head of a key U.S. government agency assessing chemical health risks, are calling for a rethink around regulating packaging and exposure to toxins, particularly with more use of recycled plastic on the horizon.
A group of 33 scientists and a collection of 200-plus environmental groups launched pushes to have governments take a much harder look at how they regulate health risks from chemicals leaking from packaging, including single-use plastics.
Linda Birnbaum, who retired in October after a decade as director of the U.S. National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences and the National Toxicology Program, joined the environmental groups on a March 3 media call to urge changes in packaging rules.
One area she highlighted was what she said is growing concerns around "plastics turning into microplastics and nanoplastics" and health risks to people, as she said those particles can cross the blood-brain barrier and scientists are concerned they can carry toxins into the bloodstream.
"The idea that seemed so attractive 50 years ago of single-use plastics and single-use food packaging requires some rethinking because of the health effects we're seeing in the population," Birnbaum said.
The environmental groups, including Upstream and Safer States, released their report with Birnbaum March 3, a day after more than 30 prominent scientists published their own separate statement.
The scientists, working in fields like toxicology and public health, issued what they called a consensus statement in the scientific journal Environmental Health, calling for tougher government action worldwide around chemicals leaking from food packaging, including, but not limited to, plastics.
They said they based their review on 1,200 studies.
Birnbaum echoed that call for tougher rules, saying that there's not enough transparency to the public around chemicals in food packaging.
"For many of them we have only limited information about their health effects, and there are many chemicals that we don't even know are there because there's no requirement for the producers to let you know what's present in your plastic or your different kinds of food packaging," she said.
The environmental groups listed concerns over bisphenols, phthalates and perfluorinated chemicals like PFAS, but they also raised concerns, as did the statement from the scientists, about an emerging area: use of recycled materials in food packaging.
The NGOs and scientists both noted increasing plans to use recycled content in food packaging, as part of various calls for building a more circular economy around packaging. But they said such plans could have a less well-understood potential downside, since it's harder to know the source of recycled materials and what contaminants may be in them.
For example, in their March 3 report "A Declaration of Concern and Call to Action Regarding Plastic Packaging and Human Health," the environmental and health NGOs said some recycled black plastics used in food packaging have been found to contain brominated flame retardants.
The NGO report said it assumed that came from recycled electronic waste.
Miriam Gordon, the policy director for Upstream, which advocates for more reusable and less single-use packaging, said policymakers need to be concerned about potential contamination from recycled materials in food packaging.
"Recycling packaging waste that contains harmful chemicals into new food packaging increases the variety and levels of chemicals that migrate from packaging into food," Gordon said. "There's most concern with plastic and paper."
Other officials, like the head of the United Nation's Basel Convention, have made similar points to plastic conferences recently, that governments worldwide are likely to take closer looks at potential contaminants that get into recycled feedstocks.