Challenges of including human exposure to chemicals in food packaging as a new exposure pathway in life cycle impact assessment

Research output: Contribution to journalJournal articleResearchpeer-review

  • Alexi Ernstoff
  • Monia Niero
  • Jane Muncke
  • Trier, Xenia
  • Ralph K. Rosenbaum
  • Michael Hauschild
  • Peter Fantke

Purpose: Limiting exposure to potentially toxic chemicals in food packaging can lead to environmental impact trade-offs. No available tool, however, considers trade-offs between environmental impacts of packaging systems and exposure to potentially toxic chemicals in food packaging. This study therefore explores the research needs for extending life cycle impact assessment (LCIA) to include exposure to chemicals in food packaging. Methods: The LCIA framework for human toxicity was extended for the first time to include consumer exposure to chemicals in food packaging through the product intake fraction (PiF) metric. The related exposure pathway was added to LCIA without other modifications to the existing toxicity characterization framework used by USEtox®, i.e., effect factor derivation. The developed method was applied to a high impact polystyrene (HIPS) container case study with the functional unit of providing 1 kg of yogurt in single servings. Various exposure scenarios were considered, including an evidence-based scenario using concentration data and a migration model. Human toxicity impact scores in comparative toxic units (CTU h ) for the use stage were evaluated and then compared to human toxicity impact scores from a conventional LCIA methodology. Results and discussion: Data allowed toxicity characterization of use stage exposure to only seven chemicals in HIPS out of fourty-four identified. Data required were the initial concentration of chemicals in food packaging, chemical mass transfer from packaging into food, and relevant toxicity information. Toxicity characterization demonstrated that the combined CTU h for HIPS material acquisition, manufacturing, and disposal stages exceeded the toxicity scores related to consumer exposure to previously estimated concentrations of the seven characterizable chemicals in HIPS, by about two orders of magnitude. The CTU h associated with consumer exposure became relevant when migration was above 0.1% of the European regulatory levels. Results emphasize missing data for chemical concentrations in food contact materials and a need to expand the current USEtox method for effect factor derivation (e.g., to consider endocrine disruption, mixture toxicity, background exposure, and thresholds when relevant). Conclusions: An LCIA method was developed to include consumer exposure to chemicals in food packaging. Further study is required to assess realistic scenarios to inform decisions and policies, such as circular economy, which can lead to trade-offs between environmental impacts and potentially toxic chemicals in packaging. To apply the developed method, data regarding occurrence, concentration, and toxicity of chemicals in food packaging are needed. Revisiting the derivation of effect factors in future work could improve the interpretation of human toxicity impact scores.

Original languageEnglish
JournalInternational Journal of Life Cycle Assessment
Issue number3
Pages (from-to)543-552
Number of pages10
Publication statusPublished - 2019
Externally publishedYes

Bibliographical note

Publisher Copyright:
© 2018, Springer-Verlag GmbH Germany, part of Springer Nature.

    Research areas

  • Food contact materials, Human toxicity potential, Near-field exposure, Risk assessment

ID: 333813899