23 Sept 2019
Denmark to Ban Certain Chemicals Found to Be Harmful in Food Packaging
Denmark is to go ahead with a proposed ban on all organic fluorinated compounds in paper and cardboard food packaging materials in advance of EU-wide action, the country's Ministry of Environment and Food has said. The proposal, first revealed in February, has been put to external consultation and is expected to take effect in July 2020. According to the ministry, “these substances represent such a health problem that we can no longer wait for the EU”.
The use of recycled paper and board will be allowed after the ban, but only if any fluorine content in the material is separated with a barrier to ensure it does not migrate into food, according to the ministry’s plans. The move would make Denmark the first country in the world to ban the entire group of per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFASs) in a product type. The Danish authorities took this decision following the vote of the Member States at the European Chemicals Agency, which has classified PFAS as a substance of very high concern. PFAS will represent a “major health problem” according to the Danish food minister.
The announcement comes weeks before the European Commission is due to publish a report on its evaluation of the EU’s Food Contact Materials (FCM) legislation, the basic provisions of which were set out 43 years ago. The disparity between detailed EU rules for some FCMs, notably plastics, and the absence of harmonized rules for other materials is felt to give rise to severe gaps in consumer protection across the EU.
To illustrate, in 2017, five members of BEUC (Bureau Européen des Unions de Consommateurs), which is a leading European body representing the interests of consumers, found high levels of fluorinated compounds in one-third of 65 tested fast food packaging containers. In 2018, a test by the French member, called UFC-Que Choisir, found similar results. These compounds, known as PFAS, are problematic for the environment, but are also suspected of having adverse effects on human health, such as cancer, infertility and obesity. Consequently, scientists are calling for limits to the production and use of PFAS. In the absence of detailed EU rules for paper and board FCMs, the safety of these compounds remains essentially unregulated.
As many PFASs are mainly spread via water, it is understood that the EU's new Water Framework Directive plays a part in the EU’s efforts to counter the use of PFAS. Besides that, the European Environment Council of Ministers defined, on 26 June 2019, several guidelines for developing a chemicals policy strategy which could also have an impact. The following themes were defined:
- Gaining more insight into the impact of chemicals (and mixtures) on the environment, health, biodiversity, and resilience of ecosystems (e.g. through the development of monitoring tools for measuring toxicity).
- The use of green chemicals and 'non-chemical' alternatives.
- Taking so-called cocktail effects, i.e., the combined effects of chemicals, into account in risk analyses and risk management.
- The development of an action plan to control the non-essential use of PFAS (poly- and perfluoro alkylates).
Although there is no strict EU regulation yet, there are growing concern over the use of PFAS in commonly sold consumer goods. PFAS compounds have been in use for decades in industrial and other processes and in many products. They are also used in all kinds of everyday applications, such as in paint, extinguishing foam, pans, clothing and cosmetics. Consumers can also be exposed to low levels of PFAS through products that are commercially treated to make them stain- and water-repellent, or non-stick. These items include carpets, leather, plastics, rubber, paper, dental floss and cookware. Water can also become contaminated if sourced from a well or an area that has been contaminated with PFAS.
Given the above, different Member States are increasingly encouraged to push for environmentally friendly legislation to protect their consumers. While the chemical was a revolution for emerging industries decades ago, the effects are, apparently, being felt now. A recent review from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) outlines a host of health effects associated with PFAS exposure, including cancer, liver damage, decreased fertility, and increased risk of asthma and thyroid disease.
In a statement, the Danish Veterinary and Food Administration said that the substances involved were very difficult to break down in the environment, and some of them accumulate in humans and animals. Although the chemicals don’t break down in the environment, the human body is capable of breaking down about half of the amount ingested within four or five years.
The proposed Danish ban covers the use of PFAS compounds in food contact materials of cardboard and paper. PFAS chemicals are a family of potentially thousands of synthetic chemicals that are extremely persistent in the environment and in humans. PFAS is short for perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl substances, and includes chemicals known as PFOS, PFOA and GenX.