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

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

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalJournal articleResearchpeer-review

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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 (CTUh) 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 CTUh 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 CTUh 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).

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
Publication statusPublished - 2019


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

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