Most of the plastics that consumers encounter daily—including plastic wrap, bath mats, yogurt containers, and coffee cup lids—contain potentially toxic chemicals. Health and science organizations in the US are calling for chemicals to be banned at the first sign of danger rather than wait for ‘‘unequivocal proof.’’
According to a recent study published in the journal Environmental Health Perspectives, there is overwhelming scientific evidence that toxic chemicals in food, everyday products, the general environment and even the air are poisoning our children.
Call to Action
Issuing a “call to action”, the researchers warned pregnant women were contaminated with dozens of potentially harmful substances such as organophosphate pesticides, PBDE flame retardants and phthalates found in plastic. The group said:
“We are witnessing an alarming increase in learning and behavioral problems in children. Parents report that one in six children in the United States, 17 per cent more than a decade ago, has a developmental disability, including learning disabilities, ADHD, autism, and other developmental delays […] as of 2012, 1 in 10 (or more than 5.9 million) children in the US are estimated to have ADHD. As of 2014, 1 in 68 children in the US have an autism spectrum disorder.”
The researchers behind the study analyzed 34 everyday plastic products made of eight plastic types to see how common toxicity might be. Seventy-four percent of the products they tested were toxic in some way. The study suggested that traces of a synthetic chemical called Bisphenol A (BPA) can be found in more than 80% of teenagers. BPA is added to plastic to create a particular form called polycarbonate plastic, used in making robust, impact-resistant materials for everything from food and drink packaging to DVD cases and medical devices.
First created in 1891, it has been used commercially since the 1950s and is now one of the most commonly produced chemicals in the world, with 3.6bn tons of BPA generated every year. The problem is that BPA can be ingested or absorbed through skin contact, meaning that humans are regularly exposed to the chemical leaching out of packaging into food and drink – and over the past 20 years various studies have linked BPA to a variety of adverse health effects.
The biggest concerns have been the impact on fetuses and young children, who have underdeveloped systems for detoxifying chemicals – the consequences are that the younger you are, the higher the BPA levels in your body. Once in the human body, BPA mimics the hormone estrogen’s action and disrupts the endocrine system. These glands produce hormones regulating, among other things, metabolism, growth, sexual function and sleep.
Linked to Infertility
Studies examining the effects of very high doses of BPA in mice have shown that this can cause liver and kidney function problems and mammary gland development. While these studies involve much higher doses than the general public would ever be exposed to, there are concerns that BPA levels that accumulate in infants can still have adverse developmental consequences, leading to neurobehavioral and immune system abnormalities. The paper said:
“Research in the neurosciences has identified ‘‘critical windows of vulnerability’’ during embryonic and fetal development, infancy, early childhood and adolescence […] during these windows of development, toxic chemical exposures may cause lasting harm to the brain that interferes with a child’s ability to reach his or her full potential.”
The Food and Drug Administration has banned BPA use in baby bottles and infant feeding cups. However, in teenagers and adults, the exact health risk posed by persistent BPA levels in our systems remains controversial. Most notably, it has been linked to male infertility through decreasing sperm quality. Still, besides several scientists believe that continuous BPA exposure, altering normal hormonal signaling in the body, maybe a component in the development of several chronic diseases.
6 Tips for Cutting Back on Plastic
Totally avoiding plastic is almost impossible, but it’s possible to reduce your exposure to concerning chemicals found in these products.
1. Eat fresh food
The more processed your food is, the more it may have contact with materials that could leach concerning chemicals.
2. Don’t buy into “bioplastic” hype
Green or biodegradable plastic sounds excellent, but so far it doesn’t live up to the hype, Wagner says. Most data indicate that these products aren’t as biodegradable as their marketing would imply, he says. Plus, this latest study showed that these products (such as biobased, biodegradable PLA) could have high toxicity rates.
3. Don’t use plastics that we know are problematic
But don’t assume that all other products are inherently safe, either. The American Academy of Pediatrics has previously noted that the recycling codes “3,” 6,” and “7” indicate the presence of phthalates, styrene, and bisphenols, respectively. So you may want to avoid using containers that have those numbers in the recycling symbol on the bottom. “3” and “7” also indicate PVC and PUR plastics, respectively, which his study found contained the most toxicity. But products made from other types of plastic contained toxic chemicals, too, which means that reducing your plastic use overall is probably the best way to avoid exposure.
4. Don’t store your food in plastic
Food containers can contain chemicals that leach into food. According to Vandenberg, this is especially true for foods that are greasy or fatty and foods that are highly acidic or alkaline. Opt for inert stainless steel, glass, or ceramic containers.
5. Don’t heat up plastic
Heating up plastics can increase the rate through which chemicals leach out, so avoid putting them in the microwave or dishwasher. Even leaving plastic containers out in a hot car could increase the release of concerning chemicals.
6. Vote with your wallet
Try to buy products that aren’t packaged in plastic in the first place, says Vandenberg. “We need to make manufacturers aware that there is a problem,” she says. “There are products that could provide the benefits we need to make the food chain safer.”
The paper concludes:
“Our failures to protect children from harm underscore the urgent need for a better approach to developing and assessing scientific evidence and using it to make decisions […] we as a society should be able to take protective action when scientific evidence indicates a chemical is of concern, and not wait for unequivocal proof that a chemical is causing harm to our children.”