of Plastic Wreaking Havoc on Our Health
It’s all around us—in our houses, walls, plumbing pipes,
bottles and cans, rugs, dental fillings, eyeglass lenses, phones, cars, garden
mulch and much more. We are talking, of course, about plastic
PET is commonly used in commercially sold water bottles,
soft drink bottles, sports drink bottles and condiment bottles.
Aside from the devastating impact on the planet’s health,
plastic’s impact on human health has been insidious. Decade after decade we
have watched as prostate and breast cancer
have risen, fertility rates in men have dropped, young girls have entered early
puberty, young boys have become increasingly hyperactive and children have
become fatter. All of these conditions result from multiple factors, but the
effects of plastic cannot be discounted.
are the link between human health hazards and plastic. Some
of the better publicized endocrine disruptors include dioxins and PCBs
, which have polluted our
. In the human body, endocrine disruptors mimic the
actions of the hormone estrogen. They upset the hormonal balance and can
stimulate the growth of tumors in the breast, uterus or prostate. They can
affect fertility, pregnancy, and worse, can affect the fetus by interfering
with testosterone, disrupting normal sexual development. This disruption is not
often apparent until adulthood and includes the increased risk of cancer.
One of the main chemicals used to produce plastics is
bisphenol A, or BPA, an endocrine
that is prevalent in a vast number of widely used
products, not least of which are plastic food and beverage bottles and the
lining of metal cans. Heat, repeated washing, acidity, and alkalinity cause the
BPA in plastics to leach into our food and beverages. Further, BPA leaches into
our groundwater from all the plastic sitting in landfills. And of course we
ingest BPA from all the fish we eat that has previously ingested all that
plastic floating around in the ocean.
In one study, the Centers for Disease Control found 95
percent of urine samples
contained some amount of BPA. It’s in our blood,
our amniotic fluid, our breast milk. Small children are most at risk because
they put everything in their mouths, they breathe and drink more, relative to
their size, and they excrete waste more slowly.
The health risks of BPA have been observed primarily through
animal testing, and there is some controversy as to whether human risk can be
extrapolated from animal testing. However, many of the adverse effects of BPA,
such as reproductive cancers, obesity, type-2 diabetes and even autism, have
been observed to be increasing in the human population in the past 50 years,
mirroring the rise of plastic consumption. While correlation is not causation,
the signs are certainly not encouraging.
Although the U.S. Food and Drug Administration has
maintained that the levels of BPA are safe, Sarah Janssen of the Natural
Resources Defense Council told Mother Earth News, “BPA should be considered a
hazard to human development and reproduction with clear evidence of adverse
effects.” Many countries, including the U.S., have banned the presence of BPA
in baby bottles. Unfortunately, the common substitute is often Biphenol S
(BPS), which is also an endocrine disruptor
and seems to cause many of
the same problems as BPA.
Polycarbonate water bottles, popular among those who seek to
minimize plastic pollution, are a major source of human BPA exposure. Studies
have shown that BPA leaches into water even at room temperature, and when
exposed to boiling water, BPA leached 55 times more rapidly
than it did prior to exposure to the
Another class of endocrine disruptor called phthalates
is also present in plastic products
containing PVC. Phthalates are used to soften plastic and can be found in toys,
deodorants and shampoos, shower curtains, raincoats, food packaging and a
myriad of other products. Phthalates are loosely bound to plastic and easily
absorbed into food, beverages and saliva, and like BPA, have been commonly
detected in our bodies. Most concerning is the effect phthalates have on reproductive health in males
. Exposure in fetuses has been
linked to the malformation of the male reproductive system.
The dangers from plastic are not just from ingestion. During
the industrial manufacturing of plastic, all manner of toxic
chemicals are released
, many of which are carcinogenic or neurotoxic. These
would include vinyl chloride, from PVC; dioxins and benzene, from polystyrene;
and formaldehyde, from polycarbonates. Many of these toxins are known as POPs,
or persistent organic pollutants
They are highly toxic, and
like plastic, they don’t easily go away.
Plastic comes in many variations, different combinations of
resins and polymers creating plastics with different properties, and different
types of plastic present different dangers. The numbers embedded on most
plastic products identify the type of plastic it is made from, ostensibly so it
can be properly recycled. (The reality is that barely 10 percent of plastic is
recycled, or more accurately down-cycled
from a soda bottle to winter coat insulation, so it still ends up in a
Here are the most common plastics, by number, and some of
the hazards they present.
1. PET: polyethylene terephthalate
PET is commonly used in commercially sold water bottles,
soft drink bottles, sports drink bottles and condiment bottles (like ketchup).
While it is generally considered a “safe” plastic, and does not contain BPA, in
the presence of heat it can leach antimony, a toxic metalloid, into food and
beverages, which can cause vomiting, diarrhea and stomach ulcers. Some studies
have shown up to 100 times the amount of antimony
in bottled water than in clean
groundwater. The longer the bottle is on the shelf or exposed to heat or
sunshine, the more antimony is likely to have leached into the product.
2. HDPE: high-density polyethylene
HDPE is commonly used in milk and juice bottles, detergent
bottles, shampoo bottles, grocery bags, and cereal box liners. Like PET, it is
also considered “safe,” but has been shown to leach estrogenic chemicals
dangerous to fetuses and juveniles.
3. PVC: polyvinyl chloride
PVC can be flexible or rigid, and is used for plumbing
pipes, clear food packaging, shrink wrap, plastic children’s toys, tablecloths,
vinyl flooring, children’s play mats, and blister packs (such as for
medicines). PVC contains a phthalate called DEHP, which can cause male traits
to become more feminized
(DEHP-containing products have
been banned in many countries, but not the U.S.). In some products, DEHP has
been replaced with another chemical called DiNP
, which has similarly been shown to have hormone
4. LDPE: low-density polyethylene
LDPE is used for dry cleaning bags, bread bags, newspaper
bags, produce bags, and garbage bags, as well as “paper” milk cartons and
hot/cold beverage cups. LDPE does not contain BPA, but as with most plastics,
it can leach estrogenic chemicals.
5. PP: polypropylene
PP is used to make yogurt containers, deli food containers
and winter clothing insulation. PP actually has a high heat tolerance and as
such, does not seem to leach many of the chemicals
other plastics do.
6. PS: polystyrene
PS, also popularly known as Styrofoam, is used for cups,
plates, take-out containers, supermarket meat trays, and packing peanuts.
Polystyrene can leach styrene, a suspected carcinogen, especially in the
presence of heat (which makes hot coffee in a Styrofoam container an unwise
7. Everything else
Any plastic item not made from the above six plastics is
lumped together as a #7 plastic. Any plastic designated #7 is likely to leach
BPA and/or BPS, both potent endocrine disruptors linked to interfering with
proper mood, growth, development, sexual function, reproductive function, and
puberty, among other essential human developmental processes. They are also
suspected of increasing the risk of adult reproductive cancers, obesity, heart
disease, and type 2 diabetes.
The Dangers of Outgassing
The danger from chemicals in plastic is not limited to
leaching from bottles and food wraps. Another significant source of concern is
from outgassing (also known as offgassing). That new-car smell, or the odor
from a new synthetic-fiber carpet or new plastic toy is actually called
What is chemically happening is that volatile organic
compounds (VOCs) are evaporating into the air around us. These gases are, in
many cases, hazardous to human health.
These VOCs include aldehydes, alcohols, plasticizers, and
alkanes. PVC is probably the worst outgassing offender and is prevalent
throughout the household. A buildup of VOCs in the household (sometimes called
sick building syndrome) can result in symptoms such as dizziness, nausea,
allergies, skin/eye/nose/throat irritations, and asthma. Long-term damage can
include cancer and heart disease. Heat can speed up the process of outgassing,
so it may be helpful to put new products containing plastic out in the sun for
a few hours to minimize the indoor VOC buildup.
The ABCs of Avoiding Plastics
The obvious solution to avoiding plastic toxicity is to
avoid plastics, which, in a world awash in plastic, is pretty difficult. In the
absence of this, it makes sense to limit your close encounters with plastic as
best as you can.
- Never heat or
microwave your food in plastic containers, which increases the leaching of
- Avoid contact with
BPA by avoiding plastic wrap (use wax or parchment paper, or aluminum
foil), plastic food containers (use metal or glass containers), and
disposable water bottles (use reusable non-plastic or BPA-free bottles).
- Look for BPA-free on
the label of products (while this is not a guarantee of safety, it at
least limits BPA exposure). Use metal and wooden eating and cooking
utensils instead of plastic utensils.
- Find food and water
containers that are BPA-free. Avoid phthalates by primarily avoiding PVC
products (labeled as #3 plastic).
- Look for
- When possible, air
new plastic products like blowup mattresses, synthetic-fiber rugs,
tablecloths, and toys outside for a few hours to let the VOCs disperse.
- Avoid plastics
numbered #6 and #7 whenever possible.
Larry Schwartz is a Brooklyn-based freelance writer with
a focus on health and science.