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Study exposes 4,200 harmful chemicals in common plastics

The PlastChem Project reveals that thousands of chemicals in everyday plastic products may be harmful to our health and the environment.

Plastic has revolutionized our world. It’s in our water bottles, food containers, toys, and even medical equipment. But are we unknowingly poisoning ourselves with something we use so extensively?

The PlastChem project

The PlastChem Project, an initiative by the Norwegian University of Science and Technology, has compiled the most extensive database of plastic chemicals to date. This resource lists a staggering 16,000 different plastic chemicals currently in production.

However, even more alarming is the revelation that at least 4,200 of these chemicals raise serious health and environmental concerns. Also, only a tiny fraction – a mere 980 – are subject to regulation.

Characteristics of harmful plastic chemicals

The PlastChem project employed four key criteria to identify hazardous chemicals:

  • Persistence: Does the chemical break down easily, or does it linger in the environment (and potentially our bodies)?
  • Mobility: How easily does the chemical travel and contaminate water systems or even pass from mother to child in the womb?
  • Bioaccumulation: Can the chemical build up over time in living organisms?
  • Toxicity: Does the chemical have the potential to harm humans, animals, or the environment?

Harmful plastic chemicals of concern

The report highlights some of the most concerning plastic chemicals:

Per- and Polyfluorinated Substances (PFAS)

These so-called “forever chemicals” lurk in everything from non-stick cookware to fast-food wrappers. They’re linked to cancer, liver damage, and birth defects.


Designed to make plastic more flexible, they can act like hormone disruptors in our bodies, especially harmful to developing children.


These estrogen mimickers are a common ingredient in food packaging and can potentially impact our endocrine system.

Harmful chemicals in everyday objects

“When we look into … products that we’re using on a daily basis, we usually find between hundreds, if not thousands of chemicals in an individual plastic product,” Wagner noted.

Unfortunately, the items we reach for without hesitation – a bottle of water, a familiar cutting board, a child’s teething toy – may silently betray our trust. These seemingly harmless products, and countless others made from plastic, can harbor chemicals with harmful effects on our health.

Medical devices, often considered synonymous with healing, can themselves be a source of harm. Take blood bags used for transfusions. These bags, frequently made of PVC, may contain phthalates – additives that leach into the very blood meant to save lives.

Moreover, children, with their developing bodies, are disproportionately vulnerable to toxins. Teething toys intended to bring comfort can instead become vectors for hazardous chemicals, delivered directly into a child’s mouth.

Knowledge gaps

Compounding the problem is a massive knowledge gap. Shockingly, over a quarter of known plastic chemicals lack basic identification information. Regulatory loopholes and industry resistance further hinder efforts to assess and address the dangers these chemicals may pose.

“We’re finding hundreds, if not thousands, of plastic chemicals in people now, and some of them have been linked to adverse health outcomes,” warned co-author Jane Muncke, managing director of the Food Packaging Forum.

The plastics and petroleum industries insist their products are safe and recyclable. However, recent investigations paint a damning picture of decades-long deception about the feasibility of plastic recycling.

Government action is urgently needed

“The number of identified chemicals in plastics is growing, and so should government action to regulate them to protect communities, wildlife and oceans,” said Dr. Kim Warner, senior scientist at Oceana

“It’s staggering that over 16,000 chemicals are used to make new plastic. While one quarter of the chemicals are known to be hazardous, only 6% are regulated globally and the risks from most chemicals used are unknown.” 

“To protect our people and planet, chemicals used to make plastic must be transparent and simplified, with the most hazardous ones banned through regulation at the global and national levels.”

Protecting the health of humans and the environment

“Governments across the globe want to tackle the plastics problem,” said Wagner. “However, this can only be achieved if problematic plastic chemicals are properly dealt with.”

Overall, the PlastChem report provides invaluable evidence to push for greater regulation and safer plastics. This issue isn’t just about recycling – it’s about protecting human and environmental health for generations to come.

Read more about the PlastChem project here.

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