Plastics are everywhere and in most cases are very affordable and convenient. But, increasingly scientists are finding that a hidden cost may be our health. Some common plastics release harmful chemicals into our air, foods, and drinks. Januarybe you can’t see or taste it, but if you’re serving your dinner on plastic, you’re likely eating a little plastic for dinner.
Beyond the immediate health risks, our increasing use of plastics is causing an enormous amount of enduring pollution. Every bit of plastic that has ever been created still exists (except for the little bit that has been incinerated, which releases toxic chemicals). In the ocean, plastic waste is accumulating in giant gyres of debris where, among other thing, fish are ingesting toxic plastic bits at a rate which will soon make them unsafe to eat.
Plastic is generally toxic to produce, toxic to use, and toxic to dispose of. Luckily, we can all make safer choices.
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What to Do
The best thing to do is to reduce your use of plastic. Look for natural alternatives like textiles, solid wood, bamboo, glass, stainless steel, etc. Also, look for items with less (or no) plastic packaging. If you do buy plastic, opt for products you can recycle or re-purpose (e.g. a yogurt tub can be re-used to store crayons). And, get to know your plastics – starting with this guide:
The most common plastics have a resin code in a chasing arrow symbol (often found on the bottom of the product).
PET (Polyethylene Terephthalate): AVOID Common Uses: Soda Bottles, Water Bottles, Cooking Oil Bottles Concerns: Can leach antimony and phthalates.
HDPE (High Density Polyethylene): SAFER Common Uses: Milk Jugs, Plastic Bags, Yogurt Cups
PVC (Polyvinyl Chloride, aka Vinyl): AVOID Common Uses: Condiment Bottles, Cling Wrap, Teething Rings, Toys, Shower Curtains Concerns: Can leach lead and phthalates among other things. Can also off-gas toxic chemicals.
LDPE (Low Density Polyethylene): SAFER Common Uses: Produce Bags, Food Storage Containers
PP (Polypropylene): SAFER Common Uses: Bottle Caps, Storage Containers, Dishware
PS (Polystyrene, aka Styrofoam): AVOID Common Uses: Meat Trays, Foam Food Containers & Cups Concerns: Can leach carcinogenic styrene and estrogenic alkylphenols
Other this is a catch-all category which includes: PC (Polycarbonate): AVOID – can leach Bisphenol-A (BPA). It also includes ABS (Acrylonitrile Butadiene Styrene), SAN (Styrene Acrylonitrile), Acrylic, and Polyamide. These plastics can be a safer option because they are typically very durable and resistant to high heat resulting in less leaching. Their drawbacks are that they are not typically recyclable and some need additional safety research. New plant-based, biodegradable plastics like PLA (Polylactic Acid) also fall into the #7 category.
Buy and store food in glass, ceramic or stainless steel containers. If using plastic storage containers, make sure hot food items have cooled before placing them in the container. And keep in mind that fatty and acidic foods promote leaching, so you may want to, at the very least, choose glass for those types of foods.
Do not heat plastics – not even if they say they are microwave safe.
Avoid using plastics for food and beverages that aren’t identified on the packaging.
Recycle, re-purpose or discard plastic bottles and food storage containers that are worn, scratched, or cannot be identified. Scratches become breeding grounds for bacteria and potential gateways for leaching. You can extend the life of your plastics by washing them by hand with a mild soap.
Find safer substitutes for plastic toys your child mouths.
If you have any plastic furnishings that emit a noticeable odor, find safer replacements or bring outdoors to off-gas.
Instead of buying water in plastic bottles, test your tap water and use an appropriate water filter if necessary. Use a stainless steel water bottle to keep yourself hydrated on the go.
Bring your own container to salad bars, yogurt shops, etc. — any place you’ll be served in plastic!
Buy in bulk, whenever possible. It’s the least-packaged option.
For wrapped foods, choose butcher paper, waxed paper or cellulose bags.
Use cloth grocery bags and reusable produce and bulk food containers. Reducing our use of plastic reduces the pollution that ends up contaminating the air we breathe, the water we drink, and the food we eat.
Choose fresh, frozen and dried foods over those that are canned. (Most metal cans are lined with a plastic resin that contains the hormone disruptor, BPA.)
Purchase toys made from natural materials. The safest toys are those made from solid woods with non-toxic finishes and natural textiles like organic cotton or wool.
Avoid toys and teethers made of polyvinyl chloride (PVC) and baby bottles made of polycarbonate plastic. These plastics contain particularly harmful chemicals. If you do choose to buy plastic products, look for those labeled “phthalate-free” and “BPA-free.”
Avoid vinyl and fake leather (PVC) products. PVC is known as the “poison plastic” because it release extremely harmful chemicals during its manufacture and incineration (it’s not recycled.) It also has many risky additives like lead, cadmium, and phthalates that leach out.
Look for the recycling code (#1-7) on plastic products. If unlabelled, call the manufacturer to ask about the plastic used. Buy the least toxic (#2 HDPE, #4 LDPE, and #5 PP). Try to avoid #3 PVC, #6 PS, and #7 polycarbonate.
Have you ever stopped and thought about the amount of times you are exposed to plastics in a typical day? For most of us, the “morning ritual” may consist of showering with our favorite shampoo, using antiperspirant, checking our daily email while sipping on a cup of hot coffee (or our favorite energy drink), and packing our lunch in the most convenient plastic containers. Before we have been awake but one hour, we have unconsciously exposed ourselves to hundreds of plastics. But we rarely ask ourselves the question, will these common plastics have any adverse effects on our health or the health of our children? The outlook, while still somewhat cloudy, is nonetheless gravely dim.
Toxic chemicals used in the manufacture of plastics, such as bisphenol A (BPA), which are present in our everyday lives and activities, are shown to have detrimental effects on natural human development and growth, often referred to as endocrine disruption. Chemicals found in computer screens and car seats, shower curtains and shampoos, plastic water bottles and prophylactics are all putting us, and, more importantly, our children, at risk of developmental delays and reproductive obstacles, including, but not limited to, decreasing sperm counts and a higher susceptibility to certain cancers. For pregnant and breastfeeding mothers and young, underdeveloped children, these exposures can have serious impacts, including restructuring developmental pathways and leaving children susceptible to various cancers as well as physical and behavioral aberrations.
The plastics problem is growing in scale and complexity due to a collision of factors including: government neglect of the importance of endocrine disruption; the explosive growth of the U.S. and international plastics industry; the absence of any plastic ingredient and source labeling requirements; nearly complete recycling failure for PVC and polycarbonate plastics; environmental contamination of air, water, soils, oceans, fish and wildlife; nearly universal human exposure to BPA and DEHP from food and beverages in high income nations; the dependence of the plastics industry on petroleum; and government failure to require health and environmental testing prior to chemical production, sale, and disposal. Collectively, these pose a serious challenge to the environment and human health. Be a part of the solution by avoiding plastic as much as possible.
According to the Ecology Center, examples of plastics contaminating food have been reported with most plastic types, including Styrene from polystyrene, plasticizers from PVC, antioxidants from polyethylene, and Acetaldehyde from PET. In studies cited in Food Additives and Contaminants, LDPE, HDPE, and polypropylene bottles released measurable levels of BHT, Chimassorb 81, Irganox PS 800, Irganix 1076, and Irganox 1010 into their contents of vegetable oil and ethanol. Evidence was also found that acetaldehyde migrated out of PET and into water.
More than 50 known or suspected endocrine disrupters currently are legally used in food packaging materials. Muncke, J, 2009. Exposure to endocrine disrupting compounds via the food chain: Is packaging a relevant source? Sci Total Environ.
According to John Wargo in “Pervasive Plastics: Why the U.S. Needs New and Tighter Controls,” in 2007, the average American purchased more than 220 pounds of plastic and more than 1 trillion pounds of plastic waste now sits in U.S. garbage dumps – built up over only 50 years. The American Plastics Council now estimates that only about 5 percent of all plastics manufactured are recycled; 95 billion pounds are discarded on average yearly.
More than 60 scientists contributed to a recent report, which aims to present the first comprehensive review of the impact of plastics on the environment and human health, and offer possible solutions. Evidence is mounting that the chemical building blocks that make plastics so versatile are the same components that might harm people and the environment. And its production and disposal contribute to an array of environmental problems, too. For example:
Chemicals added to plastics are absorbed by human bodies. Some of these compounds have been found to alter hormones or have other potential human health effects.
Plastic debris, laced with chemicals and often ingested by marine animals, can injure or poison wildlife.
Floating plastic waste, which can survive for thousands of years in water, serves as mini transportation devices for invasive species, disrupting habitats.
Plastic buried deep in landfills can leach harmful chemicals that spread into groundwater.
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