Skip to main content

16,000 plastic chemicals exist, many of them hazardous and unregulated, report says

·5 mins

#‘Life in plastic; it’s fantastic,’ so the song goes, but in reality, plastics and the chemicals used to create them have been increasingly linked to numerous harms to human health and the environment. And with new plastic chemicals entering the market all the time, it’s been difficult for regulators and policymakers to determine the scope of the problem.

Now, for the first time, researchers have pulled together scientific and regulatory data to develop a database of all known chemicals used in plastic production.

It’s a staggering number: 16,000 plastic chemicals, with at least 4,200 of those considered to be ‘highly hazardous’ to human health and the environment, according to the authors.

‘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,’ said the project lead of the PlastChem Report, released Thursday.

‘There are many more unregulated chemicals that we’re just unaware of how they may be hazardous to our own health or the environment,’ said the lead author and associate professor of biology.

The report is an important one, said a director of a program for global public health and the common good. In its report, the consortium determined that ‘plastics are associated with harms to human health at every single stage of the plastic lifecycle,’ the director said.

‘This new report underscores what we found: Plastics pose a very real threat to human health,’ he added. ‘The plastics and the chemicals in them require a much tighter regulation than they have had up until now.’

The president and CEO of the Plastics Industry Association stated that ‘plastic as a material continues to offer safety, protection, and efficiency while also being able to be reused and recycled. Chemicals are chemicals, and policies should be developed that are applicable to all of them.’

The vice president of regulatory and scientific affairs for the American Chemistry Council stated that ‘unfortunately, today’s report seeks to advance a hazard framework that ignores real-world exposures and paints an incomplete picture for regulators and the public. This contrasts with risk assessments, used to underpin the most effective chemical management laws.’

The PlastChem Report outlines a systematic approach to identify and prioritize chemicals of concern that can be used by agencies and regulators around the world. The committee is part of the United Nations Environment Programme, which has committed to developing a Global Plastics Treaty between nations by the end of 2024.

‘The most important criterion we used is toxicity,’ the lead author said. ‘Many of these chemicals are known to be very toxic for human health or the environment. They are carcinogenic or mutagenic or toxic to reproduction. Some have organ-specific toxicity, typically the liver, as that is where many of the chemicals are absorbed from circulation.’

Other chemicals are also endocrine disruptors, interfering with the body’s hormones and contributing to various health issues, the lead author said.

In addition to toxicity, the report characterized chemicals of concern by how long they stayed in the environment or the human body.

‘The chemicals of concern we identified are also persistent, in that they don’t easily degrade in the environment; bio-accumulative, meaning they build up in the body over time; and mobile, which means they spread easily in water or in the aquatic environment,’ the lead author added.

Scientific studies are often criticized, as they don’t show cause and effect due to ethical concerns. To alleviate that concern, the researchers mined data from regulatory agencies around the world that had already flagged a chemical as potentially hazardous.

‘Our report is not only based on the scientific evidence in the literature but also on regulatory agencies saying ‘this chemical is likely to cause cancer or have another toxic impact.’ It’s a quite conservative approach to identifying plastics of concern,’ the lead author said.

Using data from regulatory agencies in addition to scientific research adds credibility to the report, according to a director.

In the United States, the regulatory process requires proof of an individual chemical’s harm before action can be taken. Critics of this approach suggest bundling similar chemicals into regulated classes. The report identifies 15 priority groups, which include familiar names such as bisphenols, phthalates, per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS), and parabens.

Although grouping would capture about 1,000 of the most toxic chemicals in plastics, that still leaves about 2,600 chemicals that still need to be regulated.

In addition to the massive number of toxic chemicals, the report found that detailed hazard information is missing for more than 10,000 of the 16,000 chemicals. Without this information, regulators and the public do not have the data needed to determine whether chemicals may be harming the environment.

‘This report is long overdue. People are exposed to these chemicals daily, highlighting a critical issue where the vast majority have never gone through a hazard or safety assessment,’ said a senior scientist at an environmental and health advocacy organization.

‘We will never know in full what these chronic exposures mean for our health, but the sheer number of toxic chemicals used in plastics should set off alarm bells,’ said a research director for an alliance with a mission of reducing babies’ exposures to neurotoxic chemicals.