Plastic is everywhere, and unfortunately, more and more studies show that it’s not very good for us…. In fact, it may be linked to many of the modern health problems plaguing us today, from obesity to cancer, to infertility and obesity.
Because several of the ingredients commonly used to make plastic act as endocrine disruptors, affecting hormonal balance and sexual development, and possibly even causing dangerous changes in our cells leading to cancerous tumors.
One of the main chemicals used to produce plastics is bisphenol A, or BPA, an endocrine disruptor that is prevalent in a vast number of widely used products, not least of which are plastic food and beverage bottles and the lining of metal cans. Heat, repeated washing, acidity, and alkalinity cause the BPA in plastics to leach into our food and beverages. Further, BPA leaches into our groundwater from all the plastic sitting in landfills….
In one study, the Centers for Disease Control found 95 percent of urine samples contained some amount of BPA. It’s in our blood, our amniotic fluid, our breast milk….
…Many of the adverse effects of BPA, such as reproductive cancers, obesity, type-2 diabetes and even autism, have been observed to be increasing in the human population in the past 50 years, mirroring the rise of plastic consumption….
Another class of endocrine disruptor called phthalates is also present in plastic products containing PVC. Phthalates are used to soften plastic and can be found in toys, deodorants and shampoos, shower curtains, raincoats, food packaging and a myriad of other products…. Exposure in fetuses has been linked to the malformation of the male reproductive system.
Plastic comes in many variations, different combinations of resins and polymers creating plastics with different properties, and different types of plastic present different dangers. The numbers embedded on most plastic products identify the type of plastic it is made from, ostensibly so it can be properly recycled. (The reality is that barely 10 percent of plastic is recycled, or more accurately down-cycled, say from a soda bottle to winter coat insulation, so it still ends up in a landfill.)
Here are the most common plastics, by number, and some of the hazards they present.
1. PET: polyethylene terephthalate.
PET is commonly used in commercially sold water bottles, soft drink bottles, sports drink bottles, and condiment bottles (like ketchup). While it is generally considered a “safe” plastic, and does not contain BPA, in the presence of heat it can leach antimony, a toxic metalloid, into food and beverages, which can cause vomiting, diarrhea and stomach ulcers. Some studies have shown up to 100 times the amount of antimony in bottled water than in clean groundwater….
2. HDPE: high-density polyethylene.
HDPE is commonly used in milk and juice bottles, detergent bottles, shampoo bottles, grocery bags, and cereal box liners. Like PET, it is also considered “safe,” but has been shown to leach estrogenic chemicals dangerous to fetuses and juveniles.
3. PVC: polyvinyl chloride.
PVC can be flexible or rigid, and is used for plumbing pipes, clear food packaging, shrink wrap, plastic children’s toys, tablecloths, vinyl flooring, children’s play mats, and blister packs (such as for medicines). PVC contains a phthalate called DEHP, which can cause male traits to become more feminized (DEHP-containing products have been banned in many countries, but not the U.S.)…
4. LDPE: low-density polyethylene.
LDPE is used for dry cleaning bags, bread bags, newspaper bags, produce bags, and garbage bags, as well as “paper” milk cartons and hot/cold beverage cups. LDPE does not contain BPA, but as with most plastics, it can leach estrogenic chemicals.
5. PP: polypropylene.
PP is used to make yogurt containers, deli food containers and winter clothing insulation. PP actually has a high heat tolerance and as such, does not seem to leach many of the chemicals other plastics do.
6. PS: polystyrene.
PS, also popularly known as Styrofoam, is used for cups, plates, take-out containers, supermarket meat trays, and packing peanuts. Polystyrene can leach styrene, a suspected carcinogen, especially in the presence of heat (which makes hot coffee in a Styrofoam container an unwise choice).
7. Everything else.
Any plastic item not made from the above six plastics is lumped together as a #7 plastic. Any plastic designated #7 is likely to leach BPA and/or BPS, both potent endocrine disruptors linked to interfering with proper mood, growth, development, sexual function, reproductive function, and puberty, among other essential human developmental processes. They are also suspected of increasing the risk of adult reproductive cancers, obesity, heart disease, and type 2 diabetes.
The Dangers of Outgassing
The danger from chemicals in plastic is not limited to leaching from bottles and food wraps. Another significant source of concern is from outgassing (also known as offgassing)….
What is chemically happening is that volatile organic compounds (VOCs) are evaporating into the air around us. These gases are, in many cases, hazardous to human health.
…A buildup of VOCs in the household…can result in symptoms such as dizziness, nausea, allergies, skin/eye/nose/throat irritations, and asthma. Long-term damage can include cancer and heart disease. Heat can speed up the process of outgassing, so it may be helpful to put new products containing plastic out in the sun for a few hours to minimize the indoor VOC buildup.
The ABCs of Avoiding Plastics
The obvious solution to avoiding plastic toxicity is to avoid plastics, which, in a world awash in plastic, is pretty difficult…but it makes sense to limit your close encounters with plastic as best as you can….