The Truth About Plastics
This whole thing started for me around my baby’s first birthday. Containers for solid foods, sippy cups, and toys started to congregate in my house and it was almost all plastic.
I knew there were better options, and we’ve all seen the “BPA Free” labels on some plastic items. I couldn’t help but wonder.
Is plastic really dangerous?
Is “BPA Free” really better?
How bad could it be?
Why might plastic be dangerous?
Some intense research led to a blog post (“The Skinny on Plastics”), and the immediate purging of plastic in our house. Some of my friends and family think me annoying, and I get that, but this is crazy stuff.
Crazy, but not inevitable. Please read on and educate yourself. There are lots of resources here, and probably much more I’ve missed. There are also some ideas and strategies for keeping you and your family safe, and for helping turn the tide in our society.
UPDATE: (03/2015) Recently saw this great documentary, “Plastic Paradise: The Great Pacific Garbage Patch Trailer”. It covers health and environmental factors, but really good info. It’s on Netflix, or you can watch it on Documentary Addict for free.
Chemicals in Plastics
Plastics are made from oil. Oil is a carbon-rich raw material, but synthetic materials are added and manipulated to make an almost endless variety of plastics that vary in color, texture, strength, flexibility, etc.
What are Endocrine Disrupters?
Some of the synthetic pieces that get added to plastics qualify as, “endocrine disrupters.” Endocrine disrupters send false signals to the body, telling it that the hormone estrogen is present where it is not. They are also sometimes referred to as “estrogrenic activity (EA) chemicals,” or chemicals having EA.
These chemicals are pulled from plastics, either by direct contact with a person (i.e. chewing on plastic), or by contaminating food and beverages that are stored in them. They can cause a variety of developmental and reproductive problems, and children – from the unborn to toddlers – are especially vulnerable to them.
What is BPA (Bisphenol A) and is it Really Dangerous?
BPA is probably the most famous example of an endocrine disrupter. It was used in polycarbonate plastics, which break down over time, releasing the BPA.
Human testing of endocrine disrupters is very limited, but in lab tests with other mammals, even low level exposure to BPA may affect the brain and neurologic development of fetuses to early puberty, and increase the risk of breast cancer, obesity, and behavioral and developmental problems.
“There is growing evidence in animal studies that exposure during fetal growth affects the development of reproductive systems and, in offspring, can lead to neurological problems. BPA has also been linked to prostate and breast cancer.” – Dominique Browning, The New York Times, 2011
BPA exposure has also been linked to:
- Increased risk of prostate cancer
- Regional decline in sperm counts
- Abnormal penile/urethra development
- Early sexual maturation in females
- Increasing prevalence of Type 2 diabetes
- Weakening immune system
In July 2012, the FDA banned its use in baby bottles and children’s cups, although by that time manufacturers had caved to consumer pressure and weren’t using it anyway.
But Wait! There’s More! – Other Toxic Chemicals in Plastics
BPA isn’t the only endocrine disrupter found in plastics, and it’s not even the worst one. Other EA chemicals are being used to replace BPA in plastics – even in baby bottles and sippy cups – so nothing has really changed. These other chemicals haven’t been tested or protested as widely as BPA, so no one is doing anything about them.
In 2011, the Environmental Heath Perspectives published the results of an extensive study that tested over 500 pieces of plastic – from food packaging to toys, housewares to BPA-free baby bottles – widely available from common retailers – WalMart, Target, Trader Joes, etc. – for EA chemicals. Their results?
“Almost all commercially available plastic products we sampled—independent of the type of resin, product, or retail source—leached chemicals having reliably detectable EA, including those advertised as BPA free. In some cases, BPA-free products released chemicals having more EA than did BPA-containing products.” – EHP, 2011
Products that did not leach EA during initial tests, did so in later testing, after being exposed to natural stressors like sunlight, microwaves, or high temperatures in a dishwasher. Products that did produce EA chemicals, did so “more readily” after being stressed.
The scientists conducting this particular study did not attempt to identify or classify individual EA chemicals in the plastics, because it doesn’t really matter.
“A single part may consist of 5–30 chemicals, and a plastic item containing many parts (e.g., a baby bottle) may consist of ≥ 100 chemicals, almost all of which can leach from the product, especially when stressed.” – EHP, 2011
Health-related problems linked to the EA chemicals in their study (as observed in mammals) include:
- Early puberty in females
- Reduced sperm counts
- Altered functions of reproductive organs
- Altered sex-specific behaviors
- Increased rates of some breast, ovarian, testicular and prostate cancers
The study also observed,
“Fetal, newborn and juvenile mammals are especially sensitive to very low (sometimes picomolar to nanomolar) doses of chemicals having EA.” – EHP, 2011
UPDATE: A new study, released in December 2014, has linked the chemicals leeched by plastic food containers in pregnant women to “substantially lower IQs” in their children, when tested at the age of seven. “We advise them to avoid microwaving food in plastic… [and] to store food in glass containers rather than plastic ones.”
There are, of course, those who disagree. Namely, the plastics industry:
“The plastic industry says the chemicals leach only in trace amounts that are quickly cleared from the human bloodstream.” – Juliet Spurrier, MD, Baby Gear Lab, 2012
Arnold Schecter, a public health physician at the University of Texas School of Public Health in Dallas, expressed hesitation as well:
“It was a lab study, for one thing, so it will be important to see if other researchers can replicate the findings. It’s also not yet clear what doses of chemicals could be expected actually get into people and what the real-world health implications might be.” – Emily Sohn, Discovery News, 2011
Maybe it’s not a big deal – like lead paint and asbestos were once not big deals – but I don’t really want to submit my son as a test subject. Someone else can figure that out.
What To Do About Plastics?
I’m a working mama with a house and a husband, and not a lot of time for complicated strategies right now, so my plan is to avoid plastic as much as possible – especially where it involves the baby.
Plastic Food Containers
We got this great EIO toddler training cup (but in orange, because that’s much more manly—it’s also available in green and yellow) for El Meatball around his first birthday. It’s essentially a lid and a silicone sleeve on an 8-oz canning jar. You can get the whole thing, or you can get sets of just lid/sleeve if you already have jars. No, it’s not spill-proof, but I’m learning that toddlers, in general, are not spill-proof. And it definitely taught him how to drink out of a normal cup with a quickness.
UPDATE: Another one of my new favorite options are The Mason Bar Company lids (available in a variety of great colors and two sizes) and Glass Dharma (or paper) straws. There are about a half dozen of these lids in our house now.
I love my Glass Dharma straw. I did initially get one for the toddler, but he likes to throw things and it got lost. I replaced it (hello, they offer a LIFETIME GUARANTEE – they will replace your straw no questions asked), and then he dropped the cup up-side-down and snapped the straw. So we’re using paper straws for now until he’s ready for a glass one again.
UPDATE: (03/2015) The Mason Bar Company is now offering wide-mouth bamboo lids if you want to avoid plastic for the sake of the environment as well as your family’s health.
- PlanetBox and ECOlunchboxes are stainless steel lunch boxes that come in a variety of sizes, shapes, and functionalities.
- Canning jars make great substitutes for food storage or beverage containers.
- Metal or glass water bottles,
- There are several options on the market for glass and metal food storage.
If you must buy plastic, try to avoid recycling codes #3 (polyvinyl chloride – PVC), #6 (polystyrene), and #7 (other – usually polycarbonates like BPA).
If you’re not ready to get rid of the plastic dishes, cups and food-storage containers you already have, keep them out of direct sunlight, out of the microwave, and out of the dishwasher. If they get worn, cracked, or scratched up, get rid of them (or find some other use for them – craft storage, catch-alls, drawer organizers, etc.).
Maybe a second priority after food stuffs, but I’m sure my toddler isn’t the only one who carries toys in his mouth. Some of them probably probably spend as much time in his face as the food that used to wait in his plastic bowls. So ya, I’m that mama now. Roll your eyes all you want.
There is no shortage of fun, safe, educational toys that are made from wood or recycled materials, and are totally chemical-free. And if we’re being honest, they’re usually much cuter too.
Talk to Manufacturers
For my initial blog post, I created a petition pretty much just because it seemed like there should be one. But this isn’t about making a political statement, this is about making change, so let’s just be real.
BPA was removed by consumer demand before the FDA made it official. So talk to manufacturers. Nothing speaks louder than money, so the more people who know and refuse to buy plastic cups and dishes for their kids, the more motivated manufacturers will become. So share, post, pin, tweet – get the information out there, and encourage your friends and family to skip the plastic.
And send a note. Big companies may only notice a dip in sales, and they’ll come up with all kinds of possible explanations. There’s a Contact Us link on everyone’s website, though, so send a quick note and explain. Not great with words? Here’s a little something you can cut and paste if you want:
To Whom It May Concern,
I’m a mother/father, and have been a customer of yours in the past, who was excited about the self-regulation of BPA in your products in recent years. You may be aware that recent studies continue to find substantial traces of other EA chemicals in plastics, though, even BPA-free plastics. Those same studies have also proven that there are synthetic materials that can be used in the production of plastic that are not endocrine disrupters.
I just wanted to send a note of encouragement, in hopes that your company will look into safe production methods for your products. I will not be purchasing plastic for my children again until I find products labeled “EA-Free,” and will be encouraging my friends and family to do the same.
Plastic is Bad for You
Final word: please consider quitting plastic. The chemicals in this stuff were either initially designed as hormone disrupters, and/or they haven’t been sufficiently tested for your safety. The more they are studied, the higher the case against them piles up.
And you have so many other options. It’s hard to break out of a routine, and it is—at least initially—less convenient to find new ways to transport and store food. It’s also quite possible that your friends and family will start to think you’ve lost it, but share your info.
The concerns and implications are very, very real and the adjustments to your day-to-day are well worth it.
Baby Gear Lab, “Are Plastics Safe for Baby Bottles and Sippy Cups?,” 2012
Discovery News, “Even BPA-Free Plastic Not Always Safe,” 2011
Eco-Healthy Child Care, “Plastics & Plastic Toys”
Environmental Health Perspectives, “Most Plastic Products Release Estrogenic Chemicals: A Potential Health Problem That Can Be Solved,” 2011
The New York Times, “Hitting The Bottle,” 2011