Plastics Contain Thousands More Chemicals Than Thought, and Most Are Unregulated, Report Finds

A new database catalogs 16,000 chemicals found in plastics and identifies more than 4,200 that are potentially hazardous to human health and the environment

A person dwarfed by stacks of plastic bottles
Humans produce about 400 million metric tons of plastic waste each year. Some chemicals in plastics have been linked to health problems for humans and animals. Dan Kitwood / Getty Images

Plastics contain thousands of chemicals that are potentially hazardous to human health and may leach into the environment or food—but the vast majority of them are not currently regulated, according to a new report and database funded by the Norwegian Research Council.

The report, released last week, expands the number of known chemicals in plastics from 13,000 to 16,000. Despite about 6 percent of these being subject to global regulations, more than a quarter are thought to be toxic, the researchers found.

“Only 980 of those highly hazardous chemicals have been regulated by agencies around the world, leaving us with 3,600 chemicals that are unregulated—and these are only the known chemicals,” Martin Wagner, first author of the report and a biologist at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology, says to CNN’s Sandee LaMotte. “There are many more unregulated chemicals that we’re just unaware of how they may be hazardous to our own health or the environment.”

“This is the most comprehensive report to date,” Bethanie Carney Almroth, an ecotoxicologist at the University of Gothenburg in Sweden who did not contribute to the project, tells Nature News’ Nicola Jones. “The numbers presented are jarring.”

At this point in human history, plastics are everywhere—their tiny fragments pollute the environment, as well as both bottled and tap water. Humans produce about 400 million metric tons of plastic waste each year. But these plastics also contain chemicals that can cause problems for both our bodies and the planet—exposure to these toxins has been linked to health problems including cancers, birth defects and endocrine system disruption.

“We’re finding hundreds, if not thousands, of plastic chemicals in people now, and some of them have been linked to adverse health outcomes,” Jane Muncke, a co-author of the report and managing director of the Food Packaging Forum non-profit in Switzerland, says to Reuters’ Gloria Dickie.

The authors identified more than 4,200 “chemicals of concern,” which can potentially persist in the air, water, soil or organisms for a long time; spread in freshwater and drinking water; accumulate in wildlife and humans or cause harm to living creatures. More than 1,300 of these chemicals of concern are known to be marketed for use in plastics.

The report also highlights 15 chemical priority groups of concern. These include phthalates, which are used to make plastics more durable and have been found to affect the reproductive systems of animals, as well as per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS), which break down very slowly over time and have been linked to health issues including reproductive and developmental problems and increased cancer risk.

In response to these findings, the researchers recommend more comprehensive regulations of plastic chemicals, focusing on regulations for the 15 priority groups. They also argue that manufacturers should be required to be more transparent about the chemical makeup of their plastics.

“The plastics and the chemicals in them require a much tighter regulation than they have had up until now,” Philip Landrigan, an epidemiologist at Boston College who was not involved in the report, tells CNN.

Researchers don’t have hazard information for more than 10,000 of the chemicals in plastics. And for more than 9,000 chemicals, information about their origins and which plastics they are used in is not publicly available. “We urgently need some action on filling those data gaps,” Wagner tells Scientific American’s Katherine Bourzac.

“It is not possible to mitigate harm, to the environment or to humans, given these knowledge gaps, and it is completely irresponsible [for policymakers] to allow this to continue,” Carney Almroth tells Nature News.

Matt Seaholm, president and CEO of the trade group Plastics Industry Association, tells CNN that “chemicals are chemicals, and policies should be developed that are applicable to all of them. Trying to focus exclusively on ‘plastics chemicals’ risks redundancy and tunnel vision in policy.”

The new report comes in advance of an April meeting of a committee of the United Nations Environment Program, which aims to put together a global plastics treaty with 175 countries before the end of the year.

“There’s a need for governments to act, and they have the opportunity to do it now,” Wagner tells Scientific American. “We need a systemic political solution.”

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