The blog formerly known as   Fake Plastic Fish
June 11, 2010

Toxic Food Packaging Labels

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This post is about toxic adhesives used to apply labels to food packaging and whether or not those chemicals can migrate into our foods. But it’s also a convoluted story about the foul odor emanating from the general direction of my dishwasher.

Stinky Dishwasher Smell

If you’re my Facebook friend, you may be waiting impatiently to hear the conclusion to the following status update:

Our kitchen smells like dead animal ass. Literally. We’ve searched for weeks to find the source of the smell. Today, I’m pretty sure it’s the Seventh Generation dishwasher powder we switched to. Is that possible? The dishwasher’s running now, and the smell is definitely coming from there. I stuck my nose in the [detergent] box, a…n…d it’s not good. Anyone else noticed this or am I crazy?

Yes, this is the type of tasteful, articulate status update you can except from me if you choose to be my Facebook friend. And I owe Seventh Generation a big apology because, while I’m not crazy about the smell of their dishwasher detergent, I’m happy to report that it was not the source of the funk under the kitchen counter. It turns out, however, that the smell did originate from behind the dishwasher filter screen. Unfortunately, said filter was not made to be removed by anyone but a trained professional or at least someone with tools. Darn you General Electric! So, after I posted the following photo with a second status update:

Can someone please tell me what tool I need to remove a bolt like this from inside my dishwasher? It’s holding on the filter thingie, which I would like to access so I can see if it’s where the dead animal smell is coming from. (Sadly, this cheapo dishwasher, which was already here when we moved in, does not have any easily removable parts. In fact, I think the filter is not even meant to be removed by the dishwasher owner.)

hex bolt

and after I received a billion suggestions from Facebook friends, Michael went out and bought a nut driver to remove the filter. What we found? I didn’t take a picture because it was just too gross. Actually, that’s a lie. I would have taken a picture anyway. The truth is that I forgot to do it. So I’ll try and describe to you the mass of wet, stinky paper pulp, mixed with slimy bits of rotting food, clogging up the filter. Paper pulp? Um sometimes (okay more often than sometimes) we put empty jars — pasta sauce, peanut butter, pickles, etc — into the dishwasher without removing the labels. But seriously, paper is biodegradable, right? Shouldn’t it have just gone through the disposal like food? Well, not if it’s all stuck together with non-water soluble adhesives.  Did I mention that the stinky mass was sticky too?

Well, okay, so we cleaned out the filter and promised each other we would never do this again:

jar with label in dishwasher

The problem was inconvenient but no big deal, right? Well, turns out it was perhaps a bigger deal than we thought.

Toxic Food Label Adhesives

Just around the same time as the dishwasher incident, I was hanging out on Twitter and read the following tweet from @thesmartmama Jennifer Taggart:

interesting new study on leaching of adhesive compounds from labels on food into foods . . .

Whatever you think of social media, it sure is useful. So anyway, thanks to Jennifer I learned about a new study published in The Journal of Materials Chemistry: Partition and diffusion of volatile compounds from acrylic adhesives used for food packaging multilayers manufacturing. What the heck does that mean? Well, WebMD has a nice article explaining the study in English, and I did a little research on my own to try to understand the study (PDF) itself. That was fun. Once again, I turned to a Facebook friend who is a doctor to help me understand some of the chemistry.

Basically, the researchers studied 11 compounds from four different adhesives used to apply labels to several different kinds of packaging: two kinds of plastic — polyethylene and polypropylene —  as well as two different kinds of paper, to see if the chemicals from the adhesives could migrate through the packaging into the food. Of the 11 compounds they studied, four migrated into the food. And of those four, the chemical 2,4,7,9-Tetramethyldec-5-yne-4,7-diol is highly toxic to humans.

What’s more, researchers discovered that packaging made from polyethylene plastic was the most likely to allow chemicals from the adhesives to migrate through into the contents.  What’s made from polyethylene?  Plastic beverage bottles, plastic bags, as well as flexible Mylar food packages, some prepared food or frozen dinner trays, and many non-PVC plastic wraps.

Toxic Glue in my Dishwasher?

So what do I know now about the funky mess in my dishwasher? Nothing for certain. First of all, the labels in my dishwasher were applied to glass, a strong barrier for protecting food. However, when subjected to hot water and detergent, those chemicals would have come into contact with all the rest of my dishes. And since they were trapped behind the filter screen, I assume this happened every time I washed dishes. What’s more, I would have been flushing those chemicals into our water ways.  I’ve been so careful to buy the least toxic dishwasher detergent, never dreaming there were other sources of toxic chemicals to consider.

But do I know whether my jar labels were afixed with the most toxic adhesives? I do not. And I probably never will because the manufacturers certainly are not going to tell me what chemicals they used in their glue, if I could even determine who the manufactures of the labels and glues actually are. So this is another case where the Precautionary Principle is in order.

First, if only to avoid clogging up the dishwasher, we won’t be putting jars with labels in there anymore. And second, after soaking the jars to loosen the labels, I’ll be wearing rubber gloves to remove them.

Oh, and by the way, if you’re one of the people since the oil spill counting the number of products we use that are derived from petroleum, go ahead and include label adhesives to your list. Unless we grow and prepare all our foods from scratch, it’s pretty hard to get away from petroleum products.

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55 Comments on "Toxic Food Packaging Labels"

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milkmaid88  I’m not sure, but I just emailed Dennis Salazar of Globe Guard Products to see if he knows of anything.  I also just read this article and am wondering if these guys have started producing their vegetable-based adhesive yet.  http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2010/07/100706150628.htm

As a new business owner, I am glad you brought this to my attention as I plan to be as plastic free and toxin free as possible. I will be selling salves, soaps, and massage oils. I’m already perturbed that most lids come with plastic liners. Now this. Does anyone know if there is a DIY adhesive or if someone sells non toxic labels?

Fruit Labels, Jar Labels, Six-Packs, Environment, and Health « The Earthling's Handbook

[…] of her follow-up comments) to an older article of hers that I hadn’t read before, about how labels on food packaging can clog your dishwasher and they’re often affixed with toxic adhesiv…!  […]

Glass Jars Galore! « The Earthling's Handbook

[…] soaking new jars separately from now on!  Don’t put labeled jars in the dishwasher because the soggy paper can clog your dishwasher.  If a label leaves behind a line of glue that just won’t come off, Goo Gone is a relatively […]

And like allot of the people here I reuse my glass containers for water on the go and dry foods storage.

I wasn’t going to read every comment so this might be redundant. Ask the company for the MSDS (Material Safety Data Sheet). I’m pretty sure they are required by law to send it to you. If they are a decent company they will just forward it by e-mail. If they do not send a single draft e-mail to the general inbox of the FDA, EPA, OSHA, your federal and state legislative representative(s)/senator(s) and governor, local/county board of health and most important the attorney general s office of your state and the state (if it is in the US) of the… Read more »
Freezer Mason Jars (part 2) « Box of Bounty

[…] without the adhesives and the Sharpie fumes.  (Why am I concerned about the adhesives?  See this post at Fake Plastic Fish.)   I cut a circle of cardstock the same size as the lid.  That gave me lots […]

OK… and another thought. I’m not gonna put any more paper labels into my compost pile! Good GAWD… it’s like we live in a toxic soup… And… as to whether it’s better to use the dishwasher or wash by hand… I’ve read the TreeHugger article and I still think washing by hand is a much better deal. Here’s why. The comparison assumes that you don’t pre-rinse before using the dishwasher, and that you use the economy settings (ie shortest wash without extra heating to the water). OK… I don’t know about any of you, but washing the dishes that way… Read more »

Holy Moly! I’m so glad I’m not the only person with a revolting dishwasher:

I thought it was just because I hadn’t used it for a month or so, but I’ll bet there’s a disgusting and toxic mass in the filter. I think I know what’s next on my list…

My boyfriend just showed me your blog, and we’ve been reading it through because we’re trying to live a bit more green-ly at the moment – not eating too much meat, walking/cycling not driving, recycling everything possible, and, yes, trying not to use too much disposable plastic. And I think that what you’re trying to do is admirable – a bit mad and not something I’d do myself, but admirable none the less! However, if you’re really worried about the environment, then how come you still use a dishwasher? Which uses a lot more electricity than if you just washed… Read more »
Hi Susie. Actually, whether or not hand washing is better for the environment than using a dishwasher is not as obvious as it seems. Check out this Treehugger article. http://www.treehugger.com/files/2009/01/built-in-dishwasher-vs-hand-washing-which-greener.php Their conclusion: “These numbers indicate that it’s possible to be more efficient when hand-washing, but it’s pretty tough.” Here’s the thing: we only run the dishwasher when completely full AND we don’t use the dry cycle at all (so your argument about drying by hand doesn’t really matter in our case.) I haven’t done all the calculations for our situation, but I am fairly certain just based on experience (and… Read more »
Ken – You say you hardly ever treat anybody for cancer from “mystery toxins”. This would imply that you know the cause of cancer in almost every case you have treated. Perhaps you are better than the average MD, but my understanding of cancer is that we very often do not know the cause, nor do we know why cancer rates are skyrocketing today. Once “mystery toxins” have been shown to cause feminization in wildlife, birth defects, and, big surprise, cancer. There is no reason to trust that these new, unstudied toxins are any safer. That is the whole point… Read more »
since I started saving jars I’ve soaked them in water to remove the labels, I use a (plastic) scraper to remove it in one piece and scrub off the remaining glue before putting it in the dishwasher. I’ve wondered about the adhesive and whether it’s petroleum based or not, it’s frustrating that there really is no way to know. I’ve thrown several food labels into the paper recycling and I wonder if that’s something I shouldn’t do, but I’m sure there’s a lot of glue that ends up in the paper recycling (like the binding on books) and I can… Read more »

Try scoring the label and then smearing and rubbing in peanut butter. Use your hands to do it, it’s fun. Let it sit overnight. The label will come right off. This is good for getting sticky stuff off just about anything, including my cat who likes to get pine sap all over herself.

[…] Fake Plastic Fish has a warning about reusing jars. […]

passing on a good label remover, sans elbow grease:
olive oil.

rough up the label as best you can, usually pealing it off does this for me. saturate. wait. scrub off. add oil if necessary.

Johns Blog | Blog | Toxic Glue in Your Food - What You Should Know About Food Packaging Labels

[…] of her most recent finds came from a study showing that chemicals from adhesive labels on food packaging can leach through […]

Thanks for sharing. I thought putting labels into the dishwasher might cause a disaster. I usually recycle the glass jars because we have too many already. We re use them over and over again so there is no more cabinet space to keep any more!
We do grow a lot of our own produce and try to buy things with the least amount of plastic. I like your blog and look forward to reading more!

Hi, I just found this site, and really happy that many people think of the label and adhesive and what damage it does. I have a small business in LA and we package sorbet in glass b/c of the toxicity of plastic and we don’t use the uber super slick labels b/c of the adhesive. When we push label companies about adhesives we get totally shut down, b/c we are a small company and also the industry doesn’t treat adhesives as toxic. It’s been really frustrating. Our labels always have a “homemade” look to them and smear much easily compared… Read more »

I bet the new nut driver has a plastic handle.

It does indeed have a plastic handle. Normally, I would borrow tools in order to avoid buying anything with new plastic. But in this case, Michael thought we should have it in case of emergencies. We buy oh so few new things.

Oh wow! I ‘m so glad you posted this study and made me aware of it. I have a chemistry degree and even I couldn’t take in all of the article. Just the abstract was a nice brain workout. I am really glad that I try to avoid packaged foods as much as possible. Great post!

That is SO interesting and horrendous. Never occurred to me either. And I’m also one for sticking my bottles in the dishwasher with their labels.

Oh, the nasty ass smell. I know it well. Fortunately, we learned pretty quickly that jar labels and dishwasher don’t mix. We soak the jars, then scrape them with one of those ceramic stove-top cleaners, then the sticky, pulpy, goopy mess goes in the bin. I wish I could figure out an alternative to the bin. We keep our jars and reuse the heck out of them (like this: , or give them away on Freecycle. It amazes me how quickly people snap our jars up. Don’t they buy stuff in jars themselves? I’m sure a lot of our local… Read more »

that is jars with labels!

another reason for not putting jars in the dishwasher – fire. a friend put one in and it started a fire in her dishwasher (which i would think was impossible). the paper label came off and landed on the heating element and during drying caught fire. thanks for the post on the labels. another reason for me to buy more products from the bulk bins.

Alana, the Heart and Stroke Foundation of Canada actually recommends a low salt diet: http://www.heartandstroke.com/site/c.ikIQLcMWJtE/b.3484241/k.6D9D/Healthy_living__Salt.htm. Same for the Canadian Hypertension Society.

Beth- I looked over my previous post and realized where some of the incredulity on your part is likely coming from. By saying “less than one in a billion”, I’m talking about risk from individual exposure events, not cumulative risk. I’m assuming that a typical person if likely to get several thousand such exposures over a lifetime. They probably still have less than a one in a thousand lifetime chance of dying from such exposures (unless they live near a Superfund cleanup site or something),but certainly those “one in a thousand” chances add up when you multiply them by a… Read more »

Alana – salt IS a toxic chemical, at least down here in the USA. Maybe Canadians have more robust kidneys than we do. I treat people every day for diseases (stroke, kidney disease, heart disease) that stem from high blood pressure, which is directly tied to salt intake. How often do I treat people for cancers from “mystery toxins”? Almost never.

Beth, it’s not a knowledge of those particular chemicals, but more a knowledge of just how many fairly potent carcinogens a typical human gets exposed to in a typical day, and mentally “doing the math” that tells me how very few of those molecules are going to be able to swim through a plastic container and leach into your food and comparing those two amounts. Anybody who eats grilled meat (particularly something like blackened fish) is just soaking up the nitrosamines, for instance. Even healthful foods like broccoli (and other foods generally known to help prevent cancer) have known carcinogens… Read more »
Ken – I must disagree that salt is more harmful to our bodies than toxic chemicals. We are equipped to handle excess salt with these things called our kidneys. (As an aside, here in Canada, almost all the major organizations concerned with cardiovascular health (Heart and Stroke foundation, Canadian Hypertension Society, etc) have denounced the low sodium diet as helpful to health and longevity.) However, nobody has recommendations yet regarding these foreign substances in our bodies, and the preliminary data Beth is talking about here does not look good. We have absolutely no idea what the NNH is, and so… Read more »

Thats one reason I keep a razor blade scraper by the kitchen sink. That and keep paper out of the filter.

Ken, not only the issues that Beth mentioned, but factor in the addition of these toxins to our environment on a continuing bases. Plus the labels themselves being eaten by animals, etc. We eat the food that absorbes these toxins and we keep manufacturing more. How long do we need to pee in our own bathtub before we decide that this isn’t really what we want to do?

I just wanted to let you know how much I enjoy your blog. I stumbled on it right before earth day when I was writing my rant for my post. though I’ve been a long time refuser of plastic bags and over packaging and always buy product in glass when available, you have inspired me to become even more plastic free. thanks for the ideas and alternatives.

Ok, now I’m going to stop putting these labels that come off bottles into the compost =/

Wow!

I use 100% recycled paper labels, but I am going to follow up with the manufacturer about the adhesive. I hand wash the labels off dozens of bottles a week from various sources so these can be reused in my clinic.

Is there no bottom to this?

ugh. my dishwasher smells like a– all the time and I can’t figure it out. My fitler screen is easily accessible and rinsed, and while its sometimes that, its not always that. oh well. love the precautionary principal tho. not sure why i’ve never heard o it before.

Thank you for the info, I never thought of another source of pollution, it’s a wonder we are alive!! Just today I put a big pickle jar in the dish washer that I brought home from work. I made solar ice tea so I won’t have to buy it in plastic bottles anymore. It came out really good, and what a inexpensive way to make ice tea. Any way the pickle label came off in the dishwasher, I won’t do that again. Thanks Beth you really do make a difference. g

Would a socket wrench set work to get on that nut?

Isn’t the ink/paint on most of the labels may be lead based as well. Having read an article, which I have forgotten the Title, concerning lead in my parrot’s diet I learned that most plastic bags for bread and such are painted with lead paint. If you reuse bags and the color letters and such start to flake off, it’s lead based. Supposedly, I’m not completely remembering all the details.

*sigh* can’t any of this just be easy

Thanks for all this information. A similar thing happened to me. However, soaking will not remove most labels, since the glue is not water soluble. Also, many labels these days are plastic. And, I do think that most recycling programs now accept bottles with labels. They get burned off as the glass is re-melted, I expect. And can you imagine getting the labels off of all the beer and wine bottles in the world? Check with your local recycling agency about the labels. My first job in California was as a cashier at a vegetable market. It’s absolutely possible to… Read more »

Ugh. Must learn to proofread my comments before I post them, particularly when there’s no ‘edit’ or ‘delete’ buttons. Sigh.

There’s a concept we use in medicine a lot called the NNT, or “Number Needed to Treat”. The general idea is that when we give people medicines (say, a statin), we might have to treat a whole lot of people (say, over 200) in order to prevent one bad outcome (say, a heart attack). Conversely, we sometimes find that the side effects are so onerous for some medicines that we’re instead talking about the NNH, or “Number Needed to Harm”, which is how many people you need to give the medicine to in order to cause more bad outcome than… Read more »
Ken, while I totally agree with you that the foods inside some of these containers are probably worse, I think it’s funny that you are making up numbers based on some nebulous suspicions — unless your suspicions are based on your studies of chemicals like these. In which case, please share! But the other problem is that figuring out the chances that this one chemical could cause someone to get cancer doesn’t take into consideration the body burden of all the toxic chemicals we are exposed to on a daily basis. If toxic label adhesive were the only thing I… Read more »

Thank you for this update! Now I can sleep at night knowing that you fixed your dishwasher. :) Well, not really since now I know I have a glue problem – boo.

Some people use petroleum when growing their own vegetables. I used a gas powered rototiller to till my in laws huge vegetable garden for them. It would have taken weeks to break up the soil without it. There really isn’t any way to get around using it without giving up all of life’s conveniences is there?

ugh. yet one more reason not to buy anything with a label

Ugh. And double ugh, because I try to opt for foods in non-plastic packaging, and it sounds like they’re the ones most likely to have these labels. I suppose it’s just another good reason to avoid pre-packaged foods. :(

nice post. non-water-soluble label adhesives, especially glass jars, has been a real pet peeve of mine for a long time as most recycling programs specify that you must remove all labels. i still can not understand why a) non-water-soluble glue must be used or b) why they must put adhesive on the entire label. i thoroughly enjoy a certain brand of organic prosecco which comes in a bottle with a hinged cap (like Grosch beer). these bottles are sooo useful after i’ve enjoyed the delicious nectar within, but what really pees me off is that they switched to a non-water-soluble… Read more »

Thanks for the update :) It’s gross that the glue on the labels is toxic. I’m glad you found out what the problem was. What is wrong with humans that we have no regard for creating and doing things to our environment (our home) that is killing us. I don’t understand.

Speaking of labels, I’d love to hear some details about these plastic ‘tagless’ clothing labels that are all over. It’s tough to find underclothes without them these days!

Insanity! And here I was thinking it would just be a dead rodent or something. This is far grosser. o_O

Hi Beth – Thanks for this – because we do exactly the same thing. We also shove glass jars with the labels on into our dishwasher for cleaning. Not any more!

I think I’ll be getting some steel wool pads to scrub the labels off with in the sink, with some soap. And wear rubber gloves when I do it.

And there are some laws we seriously need to change!

It has lately been concerning me that the organic fruit I buy has little labels stuck to it. I remove them right away, but I know it is one more little source of toxins.Sometimes I just I wish I could run away from the world.

Thank you for your excellent blog. Do you know about Debra Lynn Dadd? She is another crusader for those of us who are chemically sensitive – which actually includes everyone, whether you have noticed it yet or not. Check her out. She is awesome.
Rita

Whoa! Very interesting and informative. Just yesterday I was wondering about what the deal with your dishwasher was, I thought maybe I had missed your update on facebook. I find this extra interesting because my brother-in-law used to be the one who made the machines that apply that adhesive to glue the labels on jars, glue boxes closed (like for mac ‘n’ cheese, where that one piece of macaroni is always stuck to the bottom of the box!), cereal boxes, etc. I too don’t always remove labels before putting jars in the dishwasher, but I certainly will be sure to… Read more »

Ugh, thanks for the post. I have placed glass jars with the labels still affixed in my dishwasher. Now I know what not to do.

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