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

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



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.


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.


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



The authors thank Olivier Jolliet, Philippe Roux, and David Amienyo for their feedback on this study.

Funding information

This work was financially supported by the Marie Curie projects Tox-Train (grant agreement no. 285286) and Quan-Tox (grant agreement no. 631910) funded by the European Commission under the Seventh Framework Programme. R. Rosenbaum received support from ANR (grant no. 13-CHIN-0005-01), SUEZ, BRL, SCP, Compagnie Fruitière, and VINADEIS.

Supplementary material

11367_2018_1569_MOESM1_ESM.docx (85 kb)
ESM 1 (DOCX 85 kb)


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Copyright information

© Springer-Verlag GmbH Germany, part of Springer Nature 2018

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Quantitative Sustainability Assessment Division, Department of Management EngineeringTechnical University of DenmarkKgs. LyngbyDenmark
  2. 2.Quantis InternationalLausanneSwitzerland
  3. 3.Department of PlanningAalborg UniversityCopenhagenDenmark
  4. 4.Food Packaging Forum FoundationZurichSwitzerland
  5. 5.Analytical Food Chemistry, National Food InstituteTechnical University of DenmarkKgs. LyngbyDenmark
  6. 6.IRSTEA, UMR ITAPELSA LCA Research Group & ELSA-PACT – Industrial ChairMontpellierFrance

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