• Sunday, Apr 11, 2021
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Toluene: the unknown danger in our food packaging

  • Published at 03:07 pm March 20th, 2021
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Bangladesh is yet to have any specific guidelines for the usage of toluene in its chemical industries


When we purchase packaged items from the market, we mostly check for the manufacturing and expiry dates to make sure it is safe for our use or consumption. Some brands also add holograms, seals, plastic wraps, and other protective layers to make sure the customers are getting safe and genuine products. But one factor that mostly lies beyond our attention is that the packaging itself can damage the quality of the product, or even worse, impair our health. Printing inks used on various packaging materials are complex mixtures consisting of many chemical substances, some of which can be detrimental to human bodies. To bring a variety of design and colours, and create longevity, printing ink manufacturers use different chemical formulations and substances as their ingredients. Though some are toxicologically proven to be safe, at times, cheaper options are used for the packaging.

One of such ingredients that are majorly used is the solvent toluene which is a colourless liquid substance that is obtained as a component for large-scale production of paints, paint thinners, fingernail polish, and lacquers. It is also a key ingredient to produce printing inks. 

Companies have long been using toluene as a cheap ingredient until discovering its adverse sides. Toluene has earned disrepute globally for its bad toxicological profile. The manifold adverse effects make it an issue related to operational safety as well as consumer safety. 

Due to its developmental toxicity, toluene is classified in the European Union as CMR (carcinogenic, mutagenic, reprotoxic) category 2 (suspected of even damaging the unborn child). The unfavourable toxicological properties of toluene are the reason why global brand owners like Nestle, Perfetti, Ferrero, Wrigley’s, and some others have restricted or even completely banned the usage of toluene in ink formulations intended for food packaging material of their products. Our neighbours including India and China prohibit the use of toluene for food packaging inks, just like many other developed countries.

There have been various research studies that found that toluene actually can affect human health in multiple alarming ways. Toluene can easily cross the blood-brain barrier and lead to many health concerns like headaches, dizziness, hallucinations, memory loss, and confusion. Amongst many other adverse health effects which can be caused by toluene exposure, one of the most critical effects is ototoxicity, which is when a person develops hearing or balance problems due to exposure. 

This is especially relevant for workers in production as the ototoxic effect is intensified by industrial noise and can end up in anacousia. Additional adverse effects can be a burning sensation in the mouth, eyes, throat, difficulty in breathing, and skin irritation. Toluene is also being used as a sniffing drug and the practice is widespread among children and adolescents globally with epidemic proportions in Singapore while 3-4 % of American teenagers are also using toluene as a gateway drug.

So, what is the situation in Bangladesh regarding toluene? The answer is, the country is yet to have any specific guidelines for the usage of toluene in its chemical industries. Local ink manufacturers as of today, do not have to comply with any established policy that safeguards humans from any associated risk of toluene. 

Many organizations that import inks to Bangladesh, do not have to go a toluene check. Consequently, we are living among countless daily items that are causing critical deterioration to our health like a silent infiltrator. 

There are ink manufacturing companies like Siegwerk, a German company, that have been globally voluntarily manufacturing toluene free inks regardless of any local laws against the usage of this unsafe ingredient. Siegwerk has a strong commitment to safe inks for all kinds of applications and has, as a result, committed to toluene-free production in all its plants.

Countries that have banned or partially restricted the use of toluene have been able to do so by utilizing alternative materials. Other solvents can efficiently replace toluene. This is why many countries are now instructing their manufacturers to shift to toluene-free food-packaging. 

In Bangladesh, some responsible brands have already started their movement towards toluene-free inks. However, the lion’s share of the large-scale manufacturers is still either indifferent to the risks of toluene or is waiting for a precise guideline before they choose to shift. 

Bangladesh needs to pass necessary legislations to adopt global standards in order to improve product safety benchmarks. India recently has banned the use of toluene for food packaging inks considering the occupational safety hazards and effect on human health. Bangladesh now needs immediate attention to reconsider the wide scale use of toluene in printing inks.


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