Phthalates are plasticisers that are used to increase the flexibility of plastic. They are mainly used in polyvinyl chloride (PVC), a synthetic polymer. Synthetic polymers are a chain of large molecules. They form the basis for plastics and are manufactured in chemical plants. PVC has all kinds of applications, from pipes and flooring to toys and coatings. In addition to packaging, phthalates are also found in recycled paper and cardboard. The most commonly used phthalates are (2-ethylhexyl) phthalate (DEHP), diisononyl phthalate (DINP), diisodecyl phthalate (DIDP), dibutyl phthalate (DBP) and benzyl butyl phthalate (BBP).
Phthalates are not chemically bound to PVC, which means they can easily evaporate in foods. They have lipophilic properties, making them “fatigueous”, meaning they are fat-soluble. This means that phthalates can easily be absorbed by fatty foods, such as milk, butter and meat. Lower concentrations are usually found in products such as grains, fruits and vegetables.
Acute toxicity is low for phthalates. However, chronic exposure can be harmful for a person’s health. It is thought that phthalates are teratogenic (harmful for the foetus) and have endocrine-disrupting properties.
Regulation (EU) 10/2011 sets specific migration limits (SML) for plastic materials and objects that come into contact with foodstuffs. Only five phthalates are permitted in the EU (DEHP, BBP, DBP, DINP and DIDP); other phthalates are prohibited. Most phthalates can only be used in synthetic materials and objects intended for repeated use (hoses, gloves) or in single-use materials and objects that come into contact with non-fatty food (packaging, plastic wrap), with the exception of baby food.
Bisphenol A (BPA) is the most widely used monomer (simple chemical compound) in the manufacture of polycarbonate plastic for food contact materials. Polycarbonate is a solid, hard, transparent plastic that can handle high temperatures, unlike other materials. Polycarbonate is used for all kinds of applications such as safety glasses, helmets, beverage bottles and the packaging of food products. In addition, BPA is used in epoxy resins, which are used for protective coatings and coatings for food and beverage cans.
BPA is primarily found in tinned food (meat and seafood products) and foodstuffs packed in hard plastic, such as drinks. Small amounts of BPA from food contact materials can migrate into foods and beverages. These are mainly remnants of BPA that have not converted into polycarbonate or coatings. BPA can also be released due to heat, for example when warming up a baby bottle or a ready-made meal, or through contact with alkaline foods or cleaning agents.
EFSA states that BPA is currently poses no risk to health because exposure to this contaminant is low. However, the Nederlands Rijksinstituut voor Volksgezondheid en Milieu (Dutch National Institute for Public Health and the Environment, RIVM) carried out a study that showed that BPA can actually affect the immune system. The EFSA is currently evaluating this information.
Regulation (EC) 1895/2005 sets the specific migration limit for the total number of epoxy resin derivatives (including BPA) at 9 mg/kg in food or simulants. Directive 2004/19/EC, has set the specific migration limit for BPA at 0.6 ug/kg.