There’s been a surge of news articles recently about the harmful effects of plastics. I’ve wanted more details on this for a long time so I’ve taken the time to aggregate the information that’s out there right now.
For starters, here’s a map of some areas that have banned specific chemical additives: CBC News Interactive: Plastics.
The biggest concerns so far are a group of chemicals called phthalates and another called BPA. I’m not sure if BPA is in the same class of chemicals as phyhalates, but seems to have been handled separately.
Both Phthalates and BPA have been shown to be carcinogenic and some also mimick the behaviour of estrogen. A report I heard on CBC radio yesterday talked about a study of fish upstream and downstream from a major city, where the downstream water had high levels of BPA. One third of the male fish downstream ended up developing partial female reproductive organs. Rats that were then fed these fish had a very high rate of infertility.
So far most of the bans on use of these chemicals has been related to children, especially anything that is chewed or sucked on. There is also some concern about plastic medical instruments used on children, specifically those which contain the phthalate DEHP.
Another related item to this is PVC which is a type of plastic that started being banned from childrens toys in 1998. PVC contains relatively high levels of the groups of chemicals above. Here are some details on PVC from an anti-PVC campaign. PVC contains at least phthalates, dioxins and mercury.
Enough countries have banned Phthalates for young children that I think it’s safe to assume they are unsafe. The only pro-Phthalates information I’ve been able to find so far was from plastics industry lobby groups. The harder question now is whether these chemicals are unsafe for adults and if so in what quantities.
First, some points:
- Something that has shown to be so harmful to children will also be harmful to adults. The effects will be more extreme in children because they are still developing.
- A lot of the health issues we are starting to become aware of are due to chemicals building up in our bodies over time and the interaction between them. See this for some details on chemical build-up in children.
- Therefore, I would say we already have enough evidence to warrant at least reducing human contact with these chemicals.
Aside from childrens toys, the biggest concerns in the news lately have been plastic water bottles and nicrowaving plastic food containers.
Plastic food containers
It’s hard to nail down a definitive answer on this one. This is from the US FDA in 2002, and mimicks the sentiment from a lot of other sources (which is probably all fed from lobby groups, but nevermind that). The article has the following points:
- “Microwave-safe plastic wrap should be placed loosely over food so that steam can escape, and should not directly touch your food.”
- “It’s true that substances used to make plastics can leach into food,” says Edward Machuga, Ph.D., a consumer safety officer in the FDA’s Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition. “But as part of the approval process, the FDA considers the amount of a substance expected to migrate into food and the toxicological concerns about the particular chemical.”
So, the FDA says the chemicals will leak out of plastic. For plastic wrap it apparently will leak out enough that they recommend it shouldn’t touch your food while in the microwave. They deem the leakage as within acceptable limits of toxicity. Considering the pattern of similar concerns in the past, that everyone swears it’s safe for decades until enough time has passed for enough evidence to mount against it, personally I think it’s safest to limit exposure.
The latest evidence seems to show that chemicals will leak out from most types of consumer water bottles over time to some extent. The general feeling seems to be that there is limited leakage on the first use of most off-the-shelf bottled water, however leakage will increase over time.
Washing normal and even reusable plastic water bottles is a different story. Apparently using harsher detergents has been shown to cause a large amount of BPA to be released. As a result, use only very mild soaps for washing, if necessary.
See On the Trail of Water Bottle Toxins and Plastic Water Bottles.
Personally, I’m going to make a significant effort to limit my exposure of plastics to my food. Particularly I will stop microwaving food in plastic (although, as I’m about to post this after I wrote it last night, part of the lunch I brought to work today is in a plastic container, so I guess I’ll be eating it cold.)
I didn’t reuse plastic bottles very often so that one isn’t a big concern for me. I have been using a reusable plastic travel mug for coffee lately, so I will switch that up for a metal one.
Probably most importantly, I will make sure to get exposure to these chemicals as close to zero as possible for children.
Other references not linked above