The Problems With Plastic

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Since its invention by Alexander Parkes in 1855, plastic, with its many uses and applications, has spread around the world and is utilized by almost every industry, profession, and household in some form or another. Plastic has become such an economically viable and widely used commodity that it is hard to imagine life without it. Sadly, its many great uses do not outweigh some of its less desirable qualities. For example, over 14% of the world’s air pollution is due to plastic production and the main raw material used to produce plastic is a chemically altered form of petroleum. Additionally, with its extremely slow decomposition rate, plastic continues to pollute the oceans and fill up our landfills.

In the recent years, more and more evidence is surfacing that various plastic types used in commercial applications, such as food packaging, water bottles, baby bottles, food containers, etc., release toxic pollutants. Some of which might even be leaching into your water or food.

Contamination: BPA & Its Effects

Bisphenol A (BPA) is a ubiquitous compound employed in plastics. First synthesized in 1891, the chemical has become a key building block of plastics from polycarbonate to polyester. BPA is routinely used to line cans to prevent corrosion and food contamination. It also makes plastic cups and baby and other bottles transparent and shatterproof. When the polycarbonate plastics and epoxy resins made from the chemical are exposed to hot liquids, BPA leaches out 55 times faster than it does under normal conditions, according to a new study by Scott Belcher, an endocrine biologist at the University of Cincinnati.

Animal studies have linked even simply low doses of BPA to chromosomal abnormalities, hormonal imbalances, high rates of spontaneous abortions, decreased sperm counts in male mice, and early onset of puberty in females. Additionally, BPA has been found to mimic estrogens, binding to the same receptor sites as natural female hormones, hence impairing reproductive organs and possibly promoting tissue changes that resemble early-stage breast cancer. Most at risk in the human population are people with developing endocrine systems: pregnant women and newborns, followed by young children and women who may get pregnant.

So the question arises: how prevalent is BPA in regards to getting into our food, our water and our bodies? According to an article by The Scientific American, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control (CDC) found traces of BPA in nearly all of the urine samples they collected in 2004 as part of an effort to gauge the prevalence of various chemicals in the human body. On average, levels of BPA in the test subjects ranged from 33 to 80 nanograms per kilogram body weight in any given day, levels 1,000 times lower than the 50 micrograms per kilogram of body weight per day considered safe by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA).

To our current knowledge BPA does not stay in the body for more than a few days because, once ingested, it is rapidly broken down into glucuronide, a waste product that is easily excreted. Hence, it is almost impossible to show high levels of BPA in the urine due to it’s quick break down and excretion. But, when testing for glucuronide, the CDC found the compound in most urine samples, suggesting constant low level exposure to it. According to chemist Steven Hentges, executive director of the polycarbonate / BPA global group of the American Chemistry Council, BPA “is presumably in our diet”.

Controversy still exists, however, over to what extent BPA and plastics affect humans. The Food and Drug Administration has approved its use and the EPA does not consider it cause for concern. On the other hand, many of the independent studies are relatively small and hard to interpret. So while the jury is still out, each and everyone of us needs to decide for ourselves if we’re willing to wait to find out whether plastics pose a significant risk or not? My personal opinion is that if we wait for studies to prove it’s ill effects on our health, it will be too late to minimize possible exposure. Better safe than sorry I say. And honestly, even if it turns out that plastics pose no specific risk, at least we can be comforted by the knowledge that reducing our consumption of it is at least good for the environment.

Prevention: Plastics to Avoid

So, for those of us who are concerned with prevention, the question arises which are the plastics to avoid? In a nutshell: #3, #6, and #7.


Vinyl or PVC. Commonly found in bottles for olive oil and cooking oil, some water bottles, and most commercial cling wrap. It is also found in plastic pipes, outdoor furniture, siding, floor tiles, and shower curtains. The risks are suspected endocrine disrupters and carcinogens.

PS (Polystyrene). Commonly found in “packing peanuts”, disposable plastic cups and tableware, opaque plastic cutlery, meat trays, and take-away food clamshell containers. The risks with this type of plastic are carcinogens and suspected hormone disrupters.

“Other” (Usually PC – Polycarbonate). Most clear plastic baby bottles, 5-gallon water jugs, clear plastic sippy cups, some clear plastic cutlery, and Nalgene drink bottles. The risks are that many contain BPA, which is known to be an endocrine disrupter.

Make sure to look for the resin identification code to understand what type of plastic you’re dealing with.

Implementation: De-Plasticizing Your Food

The above mentioned chemicals are most likely to migrate into your food when exposed to high heat, harsh soaps, and fat. Here are some ways to help you play it safe:

  • Avoid microwaving in plastic. Heat speeds the release of chemicals into food. Use ceramic or glass instead. There is no “microwave safe.”
  • Explore the alternatives. Glass, ceramic containers, waxed and brown paper bags, metal canisters (thermos).
  • Use paper, not cling wrap. Especially for fatty food. Use waxed paper. Cut off cheese’s outer layer before transferring it to something safer.
  • When in doubt, throw it out. Discoloration, cracks, or other signs of wear suggest that the plastic is degrading and may be leaching chemicals into food. Replace them with glass or Pyrex®.
  • Limit your exposure. The longer food sits in plastic, the greater its time of exposure to chemicals that could migrate into it. Transfer food to another container when you get home from the store.
  • Wash plastic by hand. It only takes 20 washings in the dishwasher for BPA to start leaching, and the amount increases as the plastic ages and is degraded by use. Even new polycarbonate has been found to leach. Wash even “dishwasher safe” plastics by hand in warm water and mild detergent.
  • Read the label. The numbers to avoid are #3, 6, and 7. The safest are #1 single use (but do not reuse), 2, 4, and 5. Look for brands that say “PVC free.”
  • Buy glass bottles. Use glass bottles for drinking water and baby bottles. Avoid drinking water from 5-gallon plastic water coolers. Drink filtered water from the tap.
  • Buy in bulk. Health food stores sell most things in bulk, and the plastic used to bag bulk products isn’t known to be toxic. Transfer items to glass containers at home.

Other Ways to Avoid Hormone-Disrupting Compounds

  • Take off your shoes as you enter the home.
  • Buy hormone-free meats, and avoid eating the fat of the animal.
  • Buy fresh or frozen foods, and avoid canned foods.
  • Drink water out of glass rather than plastic.
  • Filter your own water rather than drinking filtered water out of plastic jugs.
  • Use simple detergent, soap, cleaning products, and cosmetics with fewer chemicals.
  • Avoid birth control pills if possible, and consider using a diaphragm, cervical cap, IUD, or condoms without nonoxynol-9.
  • Replace vinyl mini-blinds, shower curtains, and placemats with fabric.
  • Buy in bulk to decrease plastic packaging.
  • Use and reuse paper sacks instead of plastic bags; use cloth bags to bag groceries.
  • Buy organic fruits, vegetables, meats, etc., whenever possible.
  • Use an earth-friendly, nontoxic dry cleaner.
  • Use natural, organic, non-bleached pads or tampons without a plastic applicator.

  1. “Plastic (Not) Fantastic: Food Containers Leach a Potentially Harmful Chemical”, David Biello, The Scientific American, February 2008
  2. “Containing Plastics,” Leslie Crawford, Alternative Medicine, February 2004
  3. “Hazards of Hydration,” Sierra Magazine, November/December 2003
  4. “Graduate from Plastic,” Natural Home. May/June 2003
  5. Healthy Living in a Toxic World, Cynthia Fincher. book on how to avoid synthetic chemicals
  6. Staying Well in a Toxic World, Lynn Lawson
  7. Creating a Healthy Household, Lynn Bower
  8. Our Stolen Future, Theo Colborn, book about endocrine (hormonal) disrupters
  9. Tired or Toxic, Sherry Rogers