What are the health impacts of plastic? Are phthalates and BPA toxic? And what is plastic really anyway? Madeleine of The Wise Consumer is breaking it all down below…
Plastic has revolutionized our world. Almost everything we own and utilize in our everyday lives contains some form of plastic. The phone or computer you’re reading this on, your TV, the car you drive, the bike you ride, the packaging your food comes in, your pen, even some of the clothes you wear contain plastic.
Is this bad? Not always. I truly appreciate and value the life-giving benefits this revolutionary material has made in our lives, especially when it comes to medical technology. But, there are unfortunately downsides to plastic — downsides that have been found to impact both our health and our environment.
How does plastic impact our health? Is it possible to reduce our exposure to plastic? Let’s explore.
Plastic 101: What is Plastic Anyway?
Here’s a fun fact: the word plastic comes from the Greek verb plassein, which means “to mold or shape.” Pretty fitting considering that plastic, also called polymers, can in fact be molded and shaped into almost anything.
But it’s a bit more complex than that, as plastic is not just one thing. There are many different types of plastics, each manufactured differently and for different reasons. The plastic used to create a Barbie doll for instance is very different from the plastic used to create styrofoam. In fact, today, there are more than 20 different major types of plastics in use worldwide.
The two main “families” of plastics are:
- Thermoplastics, which soften on heating and then harden again on cooling.
- Thermosets, which never soften once they have been molded.
To learn more about how plastic is made, check out these articles from The American Chemistry Council, and Going Zero Waste.
And if you want to nerd out on the history of plastic, check out Scientific American.
Plastic is everywhere.
This may be a bit unnerving, especially when you start to consider the health risks associated with our daily exposure to plastic.
Now, you may be asking yourself: “It’s not like I am drinking liquid plastic so do I really need to worry?”
Generally speaking our exposure to chemicals found in plastics is relatively low. But, according to Harvard Health, “even though single exposures to a specific chemical are small, if they occur repeatedly over long periods of time, their effects may add up, leading to a variety of adverse health outcomes down the road.”
Not to mention that as citizens of a plastic-enabled society we’re often “exposed to many chemicals simultaneously (i.e., chemical mixtures) that may have additive adverse effects.”
In fact, it’s these “chemical mixtures” that have researchers a bit concerned as studies have found that certain chemicals in plastic have been found to leach out of the plastic and into the food and beverages we eat.
And we’re all being affected. “Everybody is being exposed to some degree [of plastic] at any given time from gestation through death,” reports a report in the National Institute of Health. And, unfortunately, our constant exposure to plastic may be threatening our health.
Plastic Impact on Health: Phthalates and BPA [Bisphenol A]
Two of the most common additives in plastic which have been found to potentially have adverse health effects in humans are phthalates and BPA.
Here’s a quick overview of what you need to know.
What are Phthalates?
Phthalates are a group of man-made chemicals widely used in industrial applications.
How are Phthalates Used?
There are two groups of phthalates: high-molecular-weight phthalates and low-molecular-weight phthalates.
- High-molecular weight phthalates are primarily used as plasticizers in the manufacture of flexible vinyl plastic that, in turn, is used in consumer products, flooring, and wall coverings, food contact applications, and medical devices.
- Low-molecular-weight phthalates are used as solvents in personal-care products (e.g., perfumes, lotions, cosmetics), and in lacquers, varnishes, and coatings, including those used to provide timed releases in some pharmaceuticals.
What are the Health Impacts of Phthalates?
It’s a bit unrealistic to think you’ll completely reduce your exposure to phthalates as they’re widely used. Phthalates have been found in baby toys, food packaging, food processing equipment, medical devices, vinyl building products, cosmetic products, perfumes, etc. Basically, they’re hard to avoid.
In fact, it’s been found that exposure to phthalates often begins before we are even born — and that’s not a good thing.
A study conducted at the Columbia University Mailman School of Public Health in 2019 reported that children exposed to phthalates during pregnancy (which likely occurred when expecting mothers unknowingly ingested small amounts of products like lipstick or plastic food containers or packaging — yikes!) were at higher risk of motor skills problems in later childhood, particularly in girls.
There was also evidence that childhood exposure to phthalates may have more harmful effects on motor function in boys.
That being said, “more research is needed to assess the human health effects of exposure to phthalates,” reports the CDC, as there are still many unknowns.
Yet, and unsurprisingly so, as more research is being conducted researchers have “linked phthalates to asthma, attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder, breast cancer, obesity and type II diabetes, low IQ, neurodevelopmental issues, behavioral issues, autism spectrum disorders, altered reproductive development, and male fertility issues,” reports The Guardian.
What is BPA?
BPA stands for Bisphenol A, which reports the FDA, “is an industrial chemical used to make polycarbonate, a hard, clear plastic, which is used in many consumer products” and epoxy resins.
How is BPA used?
According to the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences: “Polycarbonate plastics are used in food and drink packaging, e.g., water and infant bottles, compact discs, impact-resistant safety equipment, and medical devices.
Epoxy resins are used as lacquers to coat metal products such as food cans, bottle tops, and water supply pipes.”
What Are the Health Impacts of BPA?
BPA is estrogenic, shares Harvard Health. “That means that in some respects it behaves like the hormone estrogen.” Basically, BPA could potentially be a hormone disruptor affecting how estrogen and other hormones act in the body, by blocking them or mimicking them, which throws off the body’s hormonal balance.
In addition, some animal studies report effects in fetuses and newborns exposed to BPA.
Similar to phthalates, human exposure to BPA is widespread. In fact, detectable levels of BPA have been found in the urine of 95% of the U.S. adult population.
Is Bisphenol S (BPS) safer than BPA?
Not necessarily. BPS, a substitute for BPA, has got some researchers questioning whether or not this chemical additive is actually safer than BPA. Similar in chemical structure, BPS can be found in thermal receipt paper, canned goods, and baby bottles. Over the years, studies have linked this hormone-disrupting chemical to metabolic disorders such as gestational diabetes and worry that it could potentially increase the chance of a heart attack or make a heart attack more severe for individuals with coronary heart disease, high blood pressure, or obesity.
So, just because a product is labeled “BPA-Free” doesn’t mean it’s necessarily free of endocrine-disrupting chemicals. That being said, more research still needs to be conducted as BPS studies are still relatively new.
The Controversy Over BPA
I will note here that throughout my research I’ve found a lot of cases stating that BPA health concerns have been blown out of proportion. The CDC reports: Human health effects from BPA at low environmental exposures are unknown. BPA has been shown to affect the reproductive systems of laboratory animals. More research is needed to understand the human health effects of exposure to BPA.”
And according to the FDA’s current perspective, based on its most recent safety assessment, “BPA is safe at the current levels occurring in foods. Based on FDA’s ongoing safety review of scientific evidence, the available information continues to support the safety of BPA for the currently approved uses in food containers and packaging.”
While both organizations continue to monitor and research the health risks associated with BPA, personally I err on the side of caution and try to avoid BPA as much as possible.
The Good News?
Fortunately, over the past few years government organizations such as the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and European Union (EU) have started taking action to ensure regulations are in place, regulating the testing of chemicals such as BPA and phthalates before they come to market. Additionally, many manufacturers have taken it upon themselves voluntarily to remove BPA and phthalates from their products.
How to Avoid Exposure to Plastics
As discussed above, completely reducing your exposure to plastic is almost impossible. One reason being that it’s so widely used and two, some of these plastics have been found in very unexpected places. Phthalates, for instance, have been found in organic, imported spices and “plastic-free” glass-bottled dairy products.
So even if you’re living a 100% plastic-free organic kind of lifestyle, there’s no guarantee you won’t unknowingly be exposed.
But, there are a few measures you can take to help limit your exposure to plastics.
- Replace everyday single-use plastic items, by switching to reusable plastic-free food storage containers, bamboo toothbrushes, and reusable bottles.
- Look for skincare products that are phthalate-free and, if possible, not packaged in plastic.
- Avoid microwaving your food in plastic food containers. Especially avoid microwaving fatty foods such as meats and cheeses as these seem more prone to absorbing high amounts of these chemicals.
- Reduce your use of canned foods as much as possible.
- Avoid Teflon and opt for glass, porcelain, or stainless steel containers, particularly when it comes to hot food.
- Use BPA-free products whenever possible.
- Avoid plastics marked with recycling code number 7 as these have been found to contain BPA.
- Avoid products with the number 3 within the arrows and the letters “V” or “PVC” below the arrows as these are known to contain phthalates. Instead, choose products with the numbers 1,2, 4, and 5 within the arrows.
- If possible, replace plastic toys with more eco-friendly safer alternatives. Note: In 1998, the US Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) requested phthalates be removed from soft rattles, pacifiers, bottle nipples, and teethers.
- Skip plastic packaging whenever possible. Rather opt for foods that are packaged in glass or can be bought in bulk. (Guide: How to bulk Shop) Tip: If not possible to buy plastic-free packaged products and goods you can always transition them into glass containers once you’re home.
About the Author
Madeleine is a Franco-American podcaster and blogger on a mission to inspire and empower women to live healthier, more eco-friendly, and conscious lifestyles. On her blog/podcast, The Wise Consumer, she covers topics ranging from nutrition and recipes to ethical fashion and eco living tips. When not working Madeleine is either spending time with family, developing new recipes, or running trails.
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Disclaimer: The advice given in this post is simply that — advice. These are not medical recommendations. Please consult your physician or another medical professional for specific suggestions related to your personal health.
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