Plastics have been the convenient and acceptable solution for a lot of packaging processes, they are used to package your portable water, line your canned goods, and even help save our sick babies. But, some plastics may pose certain unnoticed health risks more often than not. The questions are; what are these potential health risks? Do these risks outweigh the benefits? What can be done then? What safe alternatives are available?
There is no denying the fact that plastics have made many aspects of food and water distribution much easier because of its affordability, but data emerging from research on the use of plastics is pointing to some hidden facts that requires us to seriously reevaluate our plastic usage.
Our health, as well as, the health of our planet would be a lot better if we drastically reduce our use of plastics. Here’s the reason why:
Take it or leave it, plastics have been around for quite a long time, as early as the mid-1800s but in the last few decades, its use has expanded beyond what the early developers might ever have imagined. If you live in the modern world, you are likely to be exposed to products made with plastic hundreds of times a day. While the invention of plastic has added a significant level of convenience to daily life, it also brings with it the risk of severe health challenges.
From food and beverage containers to toiletry products to children’s toys to our automobiles, we are surrounded with plastic. This happens in ways we don’t even see on a daily basis: Water flows through plastic pipes to irrigate the crops that we eat. Unfortunately, we are starting to pay a huge price for this modern day convenience. Research shows that many plastics leach chemicals, especially if they are scratched or heated. Those chemicals have been shown to disrupt optimal functioning of the body, leading in many cases to dramatic health challenges including, cancer.
They are present in almost everything from water bottles to coffee cup lids to gas station and grocery receipts, prepackaged food containers, and plastic cups. Also, many metal water bottles, especially those made with aluminum, are lined with epoxy resins that can contain BPA to fight corrosion. Just because your water is stored and contained in glass, doesn’t mean it is free of all BPA exposure. Metal lids of glass containers often also have an anti-corrosive epoxy lining that contains BPA.
Plastic bowls or containers should not be put in the microwave, since this will also release BPAs. The best way to avoid BPAs is to eat as little canned, packaged, or processed food as possible. This is the main source of exposure due to how BPA leaches out of the packaging material.
The reality is that nearly 90% of the population has already consumed enough BPAs to test positive for this harmful compound.
BPA is often added to plastics to make them more durable, when it was however, tested on animals including, cows and chicken, it caused noticeable weight gain, and it also caused abnormal development to the fetus of the pregnant animals, ranging from abnormal prostate, brain and breast development and other reproductive disorders, such as, feminizing the male reproductive organ of the fetus and young boys, and inducing early puberty in young female animals. It has also been associated with attention deficient hyperactivity disorder, as well as, autism. BPA is known to disrupt hormones and can mimic the effect of estrogen in the body, leading to weight gain and hormone imbalance.
It was once considered safe though, but, evidence now shows that BPA is harmful, especially since it builds up in the body over time. BPA is among the world’s highest production volume of chemicals with over 8 billion pounds manufactured every year.
It has also been shown to cause a lot of other world-troubling deadly diseases. As HSPH Associate Professor of Epidemiology Karin Michels, MPH ’94, ScD ’95 said; “The nightmare scenario is that we one day find out that a lot more of our current disorders, including infertility and cancer, may be due to bisphenol A and only show up after cumulative exposure. But by then, we all have accumulated so much exposure that it’s too late to reverse the effects.” “You could say that about other substances just as much, but right now, bisphenol A is a top concern,” he added.
Chemicals from which these plastics were made can leach into our food and get ingested into the body. The CDC reports that over 92% of people who were tested had detectable levels of BPA and other plastic chemicals in their bodies (including newborn babies). The sale of baby bottles that contain bisphenol A (BPA) is being banned by many local and states government in the United States.
Phthalates are also found in many plastics. They are endocrine disruptors as well. Di-isononyl phthalate (DiNP) is a phthalate commonly found in vinyl products. It is a chemical chosen to replace a similar toxin, DEHP (Di-2-ethylhexyl phthalate), which was discovered to hinder genital development in babies (especially boys). While less is known about the reproductive risks of DiNP, a recent study has suggested that it can also affect male genital development, especially, in the uterus, as well as, newborns with exposure levels ten times higher than that found in the general population of adults. They work by inhibiting androgen hormone. Although, some phthalates are banned from children’s products, the pregnant mother can still be very much exposed. They are linked to immune system impairment, low testosterone, infertility in men and many other problems. The chemicals leach from the devices and enter infants’ bodies—with potential effects that may not show up for years. This is the reason why I choose Pthalate Free Hair Products. Can you imagine how much phthalates you are getting in your daily shampoo?
Polyvinyl chloride is a chemical in plastic that is all around us. PVC is one of the most toxic types of plastic, damaging both our body and the planet. According to the World Health Organization’s International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), the chemical used to make PVC, vinyl chloride, is known to cause cancer in humans.
Staff who work in PVC manufacturing facilities and residents of surrounding communities are at continuous risk from exposure to these chemicals which contaminate the air, water, and the soil around these operations.
The manufacturing process and incineration of PVC also creates and releases dioxins. These dioxins end up in the food supply by contaminating animal feed, accumulating in animal fats, and later accumulating in human fat as we eat the food products (meat and dairy) that come from these animals. 95% of our toxic exposure to dioxin comes from food and results in a wide range of health problems such as impaired fertility, birth defects, immune system abnormalities, fetal developmental delays, diabetes, endometriosis, and cancer.
What is very alarming is the lack of responsibility companies take for the safety of children. Many products made for babies and toddlers are made from these harmful plastic types including sippy cups, baby bottles, and toys. The epoxy lining of metal containers (canned soups) and drinking bottles also contains BPA.
There are other chemicals involved in manufacturing PVC that affects us negatively on a daily basis:
Shower curtains made with PVC can release up to 108 volatile organic chemicals into the air. Some of these chemicals have been linked to developmental damage as well as organ damage to the liver, central nervous system, reproductive, and respiratory systems.
Lead is an ingredient sometimes used as a stabilizer in PVC and while the US regulates the use of lead in manufacturing to some degree, imported products made with PVC from China and other countries have been found with disturbingly high levels of lead—even 30 to 100 times higher than the federal limit.
4.Plastic Increases the Risk of Childhood Asthma
Studies have long suggested a connection between childhood exposure to plasticizers and asthma, but a recent Columbia University report found there is even an increased risk before birth.
Scientists studied the phthalate levels of pregnant women over almost a decade and found that children born to mothers with increased levels were over three times more likely to develop asthma symptoms than their counterparts. While no one really knows why the risk is higher, one theory suggests that phthalates increase airway sensitivity, essentially paving the way for asthma symptoms.
5. Chemicals in Plastic Reduce Female Libido
Phthalates used in plastic have even been linked to low libido in women, with a recent study even suggesting women with high levels of the plasticizers were twice as likely to show less interest in sex than those with low levels. While you may try to limit your exposure, phthalates are often found in everyday items like shower curtains, PVC flooring, car dashboards, and even food. These toxins are endocrine disruptors and can wreak havoc with hormone levels, so limiting your exposure is key.
A recent study suggests, however, that BPA-free plastics could also contain endocrine disruptors. In a test of fourteen resins used in plastic production, four were found to have estrogen-like properties. Not only are things like reusable water bottles and food storage containers at risk, but certain baby products may also contain the unhealthy compound. Phthalates are still a huge concern in plastic packaging, but these plasticizers are also used in personal care products.
6.Plastics may be harmful to our Planet
When we consider how long it takes for plastic to break down, and the high levels of plastic pollution found even in areas not inhabited by humans (like the ice and water of the Antarctic), we can start to understand how big of a problem plastic pollution can be. Statistics show that, the average American generates between 88 and 122 pounds of plastic waste at home each year.
With widespread plastic usage, it is likely that these problems will only get worse. It has been reported that:
Plastics are widely considered safe by regulatory agencies, but not because they have been tested and proven to be safe. In most cases, this just means they have not been tested at all or that industry sponsored tests have shown them to be safe in small levels.
7.Plastic is Destroying our Waterways
An estimated 13,000 pieces of plastic litters each square kilometer of our oceans, and one huge factor to the problem are microbeads. These tiny plastic beads in many of your personal care products are only one of the environmental contaminants polluting our waters. Once in the water supply (by way of your drain), the beads collect toxins. Marine life is exposed to the micro plastics and the toxins enter the food chain; but it’s not just our oceans that are affected. In the U.S., the issue of microbeads has become so toxic that many states are looking at banning them.
The claims of Plastic Industries can’t be trusted out rightly
Recently, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) had to crack down on some plastic bag manufacturers for making uncertain claims. The issue had to do with labeling the bags ‘oxo-degradable,’ a term that implies it’ll biodegrade when exposed to oxygen. Now, it’s likely that many of these bags will, unfortunately, end up in a landfill where little oxygen is present, meaning nothing can break down. At most, the bags might fragment into small pieces, but the pollutants are still there. Essentially, the bags are no more biodegradable than regular ones.
MEASURES TO BE PUT IN PLACE TO AVOID THESE HIDDEN HARMS CAUSED BY PLASTICS.
The important thing we can all do (since the world cannot totally avoid it now), is to reduce the amount of plastic products we are buying and using. This will reduce our own exposure to plastic pollution, our planet’s plastic load, and will often save money as well. Here are great ways to reduce plastic exposure:
In order to avoid plastics, especially in food, you need to be able to identify them first.
Most plastic products are marked with a ‘recycling code,’ and a number that corresponds to the type of plastic it is made of. The number can be found within the triangular recycling symbol that recyclable plastics are marked with. The numbers representing the most toxic forms of plastic are the numbers 3, 6, and 7.
- To avoid PVCs, look for the number 3 or the letters “PVC,” on packages, usually next to the three-arrow recycling symbol. PVCs are found in plumbing pipes, plastic wrap for food, and vegetable oil bottles. Do not cook or heat food in these plastics and try to minimize the use of number 3 plastic altogether. Wax paper is a better substitute.
- To also avoid Polystyrene (PS), look for the number 3 or PS on any plastic package. PS likely leaches styrene, another possible endocrine disruptor and probable human carcinogen, into your water or beverage.
- Carry your own portable water bottles in glass or stainless steel if possible. BPA is often found in canned juices and soda, especially if the containers are lined with BPA-laden epoxy or plastic. Plastic bottles with BPA are usually marked with a number 7 recycling code. The number 7 may be OK if it says “PLA” or has a leaf symbol on it.
Since, the use of plastic is widespread, you may find out that you can’t avoid it altogether, here are the numbers that are considered “safer” plastics:
#1 polyethylene terephthalate (PETE or PET) Most single-serve plastic beverage bottles are made with PET.
#2 High Density Polyethylene (HDPE) includes juice bottles, detergent bottles, opaque milk containers, butter tubs and toiletry bottles.
#4 Low Density Polyethylene (LDPE) includes some food wraps, grocery bags, bread bags, and squeezable bottles.
#5 Polypropylene includes water bottles with a cloudy finish, most yogurt cups, medicine bottles, ketchup containers, syrup bottles, and straws.
Therefore, check your numbers before you purchase and make sure not to use #1 plastic more than once.
- While it’s likely impossible to completely avoid all plastic products, try to use as little as possible, most especially if you are pregnant, and never use it around food. If you use a baby bottle, look for bottles ideally made of tempered glass or a safer plastic. As a general rule, hard, clear plastic contains BPA while soft or cloudy plastic does not. Most major manufacturers now offer BPA-free baby bottles.
- Heat promotes the leaching of chemicals from plastic so keep anything stored in plastic containers in a cool, dark environment. Even the safer plastics will leach chemicals over time so don’t store anything you want to ingest in such a container over the long term. Try looking for glass, ceramic, enamel covered metal, porcelain, or stainless steel containers without plastic liners.
- Do not microwave plastic food containers. Polycarbonate plastic may break down at high temperatures and release BPAs into the food. Although manufacturers are not required to label products to say whether they contain BPA, polycarbonate containers that do are usually marked with a number 7 recycling code on the bottom of the package.
- Start using a glass or stainless steel water bottle in place of disposable plastic water bottles (this is my favorite). Even better, fill your water bottle from a re-usable stainless steel water filter that will also help reduce chemical exposure from water. Bring your own glass/metal bottle or thermos when buying drinks away from home. Don’t get takeout food in Styrofoam containers which are a major source of plastic chemicals and waste.
- Replace plastic bags and plastic food storage containers with safer reusable options. Plastic bags, plastic wrap and thin plastic storage containers are major sources of plastic exposure. Switch to glass or stainless steel for storage, or use an unbreakable option like silicon.
- Also, plastic bottles of drinks that have been on store shelves for a long time probably already have leached plastic into the contents of the bottles. If you taste plastic when you drink your beverage, discard it right away.
- Choose glass containers, metal, silverware, bakeware and cardboard over cans. Foods packaged in cardboard cartons made of layers of aluminum and lined with a #2 plastic material are safer than cans with plastic linings containing BPA.
- Also, get rid of canned foods and eat more fresh or frozen fruits and vegetables, which have better nutrition, plus they taste better and have fewer preservatives. This is a huge step for your health on its own, but it will also reduce the amount of plastic waste we produce each year. Shop at farmers’ markets and use reusable bags. If it is in a plastic bag or a box, just don’t buy it.
- Replace plastic household items with alternatives—items made from glass, safer plastics, stainless steel, ceramics, or wood are better choices.
Government and Regulatory Bodies action:
All the countries in the European Union have placed a ban on the use of endocrine disruptors in plastics that come into contact with food and drink and the Government of Canada has banned the use of BPA in baby bottles. In the Western World, The United States is the only federal government that insists plastics are safe. Fortunately, several US plastic manufacturers are starting to voluntarily remove these chemicals from many of their products, and some retailers are taking the extra step of removing toxic plastics from their stores. But there are no official bans or prohibitions in place for any of these chemicals. Fortunately, scientists are coming up with a number of alternative plastic-type products that are nontoxic and biodegradable such as containers made from corn and other food-based materials.
Researches have commenced on the effects of these chemicals on humans, and better alternatives. However, pending the time that these researches will give a clearer picture as to where we are in the use of plastics, we can do a lot to safeguard our health and that of others.
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