EDF Health

Selected tag(s): chemicals in food

Toxic chemicals can enter food through packaging. We made a list.

Boma Brown-West, Senior Manager, Tom Neltner, Chemicals Policy Director, and Michelle Harvey, Consultant.

This is the second in a series evaluating the challenges in single-use food packaging waste.

See our list of key chemicals of concern in food packaging.

In the late 1980s, the Council of Northeast Governors (CONEG) was concerned that heavy metals in packaging would accumulate in recycled materials to levels that presented serious health concerns. The organization drafted model legislation that prohibited the intentional addition of mercury, lead, cadmium, and hexavalent chromium to any component of packaging, including inks. It also set a 100 parts-per-million limit on the total amount of these four heavy metals. To ensure compliance, companies making packaging materials had to provide certificates of compliance to downstream purchasers and report compliance to the states.

CONEG also established the Toxics in Packaging Clearinghouse to maintain the model legislation, coordinate implementation of state legislation, and serve as a resource for companies seeking compliance information. The Council’s hypothesis: protecting virgin material from contamination will improve the recyclability of post-consumer materials and protect public health.

Over the years, 19 states have adopted a variation of the model legislation.  In 2018, the State of Washington took an unprecedented step of expanding its version of the legislation from heavy metals to include per- and poly-fluorinated alkyl substances (PFAS). PFAS are bioaccumulating, persistent chemicals and are associated with an array of health problems including endocrine disruption and children’s developmental harm. The State was concerned that paper and cardboard food packaging treated with these chemicals may be contaminating composting and paper recycling processes post-consumer.

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How and when will FDA rule on ortho-phthalates in food? It’s anyone’s guess.

Tom Neltner, J.D.is Chemicals Policy Director and Maricel Maffini, Ph.D., Consultant

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has yet to decide three overlapping petitions requesting the agency take action on uses of ortho-phthalates in contact with food. Two of the petitions—a food additive petition and a citizen petition—were submitted by EDF, Earthjustice and nine other public health allies. In those petitions, we requested the revocation of all uses of this class of chemicals in food because the agency can no longer conclude that such use is safe. The law required FDA to make a decision by no later than September 2018; that deadline has long since come and gone, and the agency hasn’t acted.

The third petition was submitted by the Flexible Vinyl Alliance, an industry group. It requested that the agency revoke the food additive uses of 26 ortho-phthalates because, according to FDA’s notice, they had been abandoned. The agency agreed to review the petition in July 2018 and invited public comment on it in November 2018.  Public comments were due on January 14, 2019.

In a press release about its petition, the industry group announced that only four ortho-phthalates “remain relevant in food contact applications”:  di(2-ethylhexyl) phthalate (DEHP), diisononyl phthalate (DINP), dicyclohexyl phthalate (DCHP) and diisodecyl phthalate (DIDP).  It also stated that it confidentially provided the agency with exposure and safety data on these four substances. The agency has made neither the industry’s petition nor the safety data on the four ortho-phthalates publicly available. We submitted a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request seeking industry’s “confidential” report and more information on the petition.  We await a response.

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