March 16, 2011

The Problem with Plastic

The list of health problems associated with plastics seems to grow longer by the day. The latest: British and U.S. researchers found an association between bisphenol A (BPA), a chemical found in plastics, and heart disease. The study also confirmed that BPA plays a role in diabetes and some forms of liver disease.

The problem is not so much with plastic, but with the chemical additives used in plastics. They’re necessary to mold and stabilize plastic, but it has not been until most recently that people have started realizing the extent of their impact on human health.

The additives you hear most about are BPA and phthalates. BPA is used to make plastic food containers firm and vinyl products soft and pliable. It also happens to be a hormone disruptor (a fact known since the 1930s) linked to an assortment of health problems, including obesity, early puberty in girls, low sperm counts in men, reproductive problems, and asthma. It is estimated that 90% of people in the U.S. and Europe have detectable levels of BPA in their body. In 2010 Canada declared BPA a toxic chemical, making it easier for the government to regulate its use and possibly leading to the outright ban of BPA in food containers.

Phthalates are chemicals used to make plastics like polyvinyl chloride (PVC) more flexible or durable and also as solvents. While phthalates have been banned in toys and child care products for children under 12, they’re found in pretty much everything else. Just a few examples are food packaging, plastic bags, inflatable toys, hoses, raincoats, shower curtains, vinyl flooring, adhesives, detergents, perfume, nail polish, soap, hair spray and shampoo. Phthalates have been found to disrupt the endocrine system. According the U.S. Center for Disease Control, several phthalate compounds have caused reduced sperm counts, testicular atrophy and structural abnormalities in the reproductive systems of male test animals. They have also been linked to liver cancer. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency regulates phthalates as water and air pollutants and the European Union prohibits phthalates in cosmetics sold in Europe.

Now consider all the oil and other resources required to make plastics, the pollution created in their production, and the massive amounts that end up in landfills, the ocean, or incinerated (releasing cancer-causing pollutants into the air). While there’s no way to avoid plastics completely, there are steps you can make to guard your health and protect the environment.

  • Choose reusable over disposable. Invest in food and beverage containers made of glass, ceramic, porcelain, Pyrex, bamboo, or stainless steel instead of using bags, containers, and bottles made of plastic. Pack real silverware with your lunch. It feels more luxurious than plastic utensils anyways. And don’t forget: Reusable shopping bags are a great option for all shopping, not just groceries.
  • Be picky about packaging. Choose products in recyclable or reusable containers, such as cardboard cartons or glass jars. Opt for fresh or frozen foods in place of canned goods. Avoid plastic wrapped food, especially fatty foods like meats and cheeses, whenever possible. You can even ask the butcher to wrap your meat in wax paper instead of plastic. Transfer any plastic-wrapped food to non-plastic containers once you get home.
  • Watch how you heat. Avoid heating food in plastic containers, especially polycarbonate plastic food containers. Polycarbonate containers that contain BPA usually have a #7 recycling code on them.
  • Watch how you wash. Avoid putting plastic containers in the dishwasher. Yes, the dishwasher uses less water and energy than hand washing, but the heat and harsh detergent may cause may cause plastic to leach chemicals.
  • Just say no to vinyl and PVC. If you absolutely have to have plastic food containers, opt for those labeled as PETE or recycling codes #2, #4, and #5. Avoid those labeled #3 or #7. Instead of a vinyl shower curtain, use one made of cotton, hemp, or polyester.
  • Go fragrance-free. Fragrance almost always contains phthalates, so in addition to taking a pass on perfume and cologne choose fragrance-free personal care products (i.e., moisturizers, shampoos, deodorants, etc.) whenever possible. At home, avoid air fresheners and swap chemically-scented candles for soy- or beeswax-based wax candles scented with essential oils.
  • Opt for clothing, linens, and other housewares made of natural materials.

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