As the scary studies about plastic’s health effects pile up, should we kick the habit?
(See also Toy Story, published as part of same feature)
My moment of plastic panic came a few months ago. As a science writer, I’ve spent the past several years following the steady stream of research into the disturbing effects of the chemicals that leach into our bodies from everyday plastic objects. I’d managed to stay pretty calm about these unsettling discoveries, but then I went to yet another presentation where renowned scientists described new, peer-reviewed findings on how plastic’s ingredients may cause reproductive abnormalities and obesity. Afterward, I huddled with the other journalists present, brimming with uneasy questions: Does this mean we should ditch our refillable plastic water bottles? Is it safe for our kids to chew on plastic toys? Should we try to go completely plastic free?
It’s one thing to use cloth shopping bags in the name of ecofriendliness or to forswear plastic cutlery in the pursuit of style; it’s another to eschew plastics because they might be a health risk. But are you about to give up your computer or cell phone? What about your bike helmet or your child’s car seat? Your contact lenses? Your toothbrush? Probably not.
Then what to do about the alarming fact that plastic’s chemical constituents are percolating throughout our bodies, apparently interfering with our metabolism, our sex organs, and our children’s neurological and reproductive development? The US Centers for Disease Control has found two compounds—phthalates, used in polyvinyl chloride (PVC) plastic, and bisphenol A (BPA), a building block of polycarbonate plastics—in the urine of a majority of Americans tested. Both chemicals are short-lived once they enter the environment, but they’re being scrutinised for their potential to mimic and disrupt our hormones—even before we’re born.
‘Today there are no babies born without measurable levels of phthalates,’ says Shanna Swan, PhD, director of the Center for Reproductive Epidemiology at the University of Rochester School of Medicine and Dentistry. Phthalates, which are used to give flexibility to PVC (a.k.a. [See image 3 in chart, page 26] plastic—though it’s rarely labelled), turn up in bath and teething toys, shower curtains, upholstery, flooring, medical equipment, and countless other products, including cosmetics. Animal studies have linked phthalates to the same genital abnormalities that are now among the most common birth defects in American baby boys. ‘We’re not yet sure what level of exposure produces these adverse effects, but they are a real concern,’ explains Paul Foster, PhD, a senior researcher at the US National Toxicology Program.
Similarly inescapable is bisphenol A, which seeps out of polycarbonate plastic when it’s heated or exposed to acids and also as it ages. Sometimes labelled [See image 7 in chart, page 26], polycarbonate, it is used in baby bottles, transparent reusable water bottles (but not the bottles water is sold in), food packaging and utensils, coffeemakers, kitchen appliances, and numerous other products. Bisphenol A also forms the epoxy resins used to line food cans and is in dental sealants. It mimics the effects of oestrogen and has been linked to prostate cancer and precancerous breast tissue in animal studies. Low doses have prompted chromosomal abnormalities in human uterine cells in vitro. And, as shown by recent headline-grabbing studies, bisphenol A also appears to cause mice exposed in the womb to be predisposed to obesity.
Wondering what to do with all this information, I put the question to some of the scientists issuing these unsettling findings. None of them gives plastics the all-clear. One leading bisphenol A researcher, Frederick vom Saal of the University of Missouri-Columbia, never uses plastic dishes for hot food or in the microwave. Dr Theo Colborn, a pioneer of endocrine-disruption research, steers clear of plastic food containers. ‘I put everything into glass,’ she told me.
Other researchers are also cautious. ‘I don’t want to induce panic, but I think we should be addressing women of childbearing age,’ says Foster. Because phthalates and bisphenol A seem to have the greatest impact in the womb, he and Swan suggest that women who are pregnant or are planning to conceive take the most precautions. ‘These foetal effects are permanent and irreversible, while impacts of adult exposure appear to be reversible,’ explains Swan.
Fortunately, bisphenol A is relatively easy to avoid during pregnancy, says Hugh Taylor, MD, chief of reproductive endocrinology at the Yale University School of Medicine. He recommends that expectant women avoid polycarbonate food containers, skip canned foods, and delay getting any dental sealants unless absolutely necessary. Phthalates are a bit trickier to avoid, since they have so many applications. But Swan recommends avoiding PVC food containers.
The Food and Drug Administration asserts that these plastics are entirely safe, while the American Chemistry Council urges consumers to ignore ‘scare stories’. But public concern is already changing the marketplace. The European Union recently banned three kinds of phthalates in products for kids. San Francisco bars products for young children that contain certain phthalates; California and other states are considering similar bans. Meanwhile, Mattel and other toy makers have eliminated phthalates from teething rings, and brands such as Born Free sell bisphenol A-free baby bottles (though less expensive coloured bottles also do the trick).
Meanwhile, I haven’t ripped up my vinyl flooring or stopped using plastic shampoo bottles. But I am trying to limit my plastic intake. I’ve switched to stainless steel for my water bottle and commuter mug and swapped my plastic coffee-filter cone for a ceramic one. I’m also pickier about what plastic I do use: I had to do some sleuthing to find out if the unmarked plastic tumblers at a neighborhood café are PVC (they aren’t). My precautions will probably evolve as research slowly reveals more. (Polystyrene, flame-retardants, and other plastic additives, for example, are whole other areas of concern.) Meanwhile, plastic’s dirty secrets, like the stuff itself, will stubbornly hang around.
Elizabeth Grossman is the author of High Tech Trash: Digital Devices, Hidden Toxics, and Human Health. She also wrote Watershed: The Undamming of America, Adventuring Along the Lewis and Clark Trail and was co-editor of Shadow Cat: Encountering the American Mountain Lion. Her work has appeared in a variety of publications including The Nation, Orion, The Seattle Times, and The Washington Post. She lives in Portland, Oregon.
Published in Kindred, Issue 24, Dec 08
Reprinted with permission from Mother Jones magazine, ©2007, Foundation for National Progress. A magazine and website of investigative reporting, Mother Jones offers readers probing public interest journalism and thought-provoking analysis of contemporary politics and social issues. For more information or to subscribe, visit www.motherjones.com
Other articles by Elizabeth Grossman about plastics
Two words: Bad plastic
Chemicals May Play Role in Rise in Obesity
Handy hints for reducing plastics in your home
Store food in glass—recycle your glass jam and yogurt jars into your new storage program. Kitchenware stores now carry glass food containers in a variety of shapes and sizes.
Stainless steel bowls with plates on top are an inexpensive and great way to store food in the fridge.
Use cloth bags to carry your shopping.
Replace your child’s plastic lunch box with a washable alternative such as neoprene or canvas. Check out the reusable sandwich wraps and cool-looking washable lunch bags from 4MyEarth (www.4myearth.com.au)
Replace your family’s plastic drinking bottles with aluminium alternatives such as SIGG bottles (available from your local camping store).
Toys, bibs and teethers—avoid those made with PVC (#3). Many good products are advertised as ‘PVC-free’ and ‘BPA-free’ (bisphenol A).
Replace baby bottles and sippy cups if they are made with polycaronate (#7), which can leach BPA. Instead use glass, BPA-free, or stainless steel containers.
Check out your kitchen utensils and see where they can be replaced with stainless steel options, such as your colander and coffee filter.