Protect Your Health: Shrink Your Plastic Profile

A scientific-literature review numbers pollution and health problems among the disadvantages of widespread plastic use. But you can protect yourself.

March 24, 2010

Pass up plastic and choose reusable bags for your produce.

The disadvantages of plastic are becoming quite clear. Evidence is mounting that BPA is less safe and more widespread than we realized, but that's just one compelling reason to think about all the plastic we come in contact with in our lives. Try to spend a day without coming into contact with plastic, and you'll quickly realize that it's impossible. The material has become such a staple of modern life that almost everything we touch seems to be made, at least in part, from plastic. But as useful as plastic is, being exposed to so much of it may be putting our health at risk, according to a recent report published in the Annual Review of Public Health.


Rolf Halden, PhD, associate professor at the Center for Environmental Biotechnology in the Biodesign Institute at Arizona State University, reviewed the existing scientific literature on plastic's effects on human health and the environment, and he came to the conclusion that the three "Rs" (reduce, reuse, recycle) aren't doing enough to reduce the environmental damage, health threats, and other disadvantages of plastic overuse. "Plastic pollution is a serious environmental issue that will escalate in the future with the continued production of nonbiodegradable materials," he says.

The world's production of plastics will surpass 300 million tons by the end of this year, Halden writes, consuming 8 percent of the world's annual oil production. Approximately a third of those plastics are used in disposable goods like takeout containers, plastic bags, and product packaging, leading to a pretty huge pile of plastic trash. About half a pound of plastic trash is produced per person per day, and the disposal of all that garbage is creating huge problems, considering that most municipalities recycle only two out of dozens of types of plastic. Non-recycled plastics wind up in landfills or, increasingly, in the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, a swath of ocean the size of Texas in the North Pacific completely covered with trash, most of which is plastic. If plastics don't wind up in landfills or the ocean, they're incinerated, releasing cancer-causing compounds called dioxins and furans into the atmosphere.

But the disadvantages of plastic go beyond its environmental impact. More and more research is finding that the chemical additives in plastics— used to make plastics harder or softer, to keep them from breaking down too quickly when exposed to light and heat, and to keep them from absorbing bacteria—are causing severe human health problems. The two most researched, and worrisome, additives are BPA and phthalates. BPA is a hormone-disrupting chemical used to keep polycarbonate plastic food containers rigid, but it has been linked to a variety of problems, including obesity, early puberty in girls (which itself is a precursor to obesity), decreased levels of testosterone and lowered sperm counts in men, lowered immune responses, and aggressive behavior in children—all at levels lower than what the EPA deems "safe."

Like BPA, phthalates are hormone disruptors, though they're used to keep plastics—usually vinyl—soft and pliable. They've been definitively linked to increased rates of asthma, and a number of studies have found they interfere with male reproductive development and could possibly play a role in obesity and insulin resistance. While phthalates have been banned in products marketed to children, they're still widely used in other household products, such as shower curtains and vinyl flooring, as well as medical products like IV bags and medical tubing.

Halden adds that other types of plastic have been found to leach chemicals as well. For instance, #2 plastic, used in milk jugs and oil bottles, may transmit a hormone-disrupting chemical called nonylphenol into food, while traces of phthalates have been detected in water stored for nine months or longer in disposable plastic water bottles. However, the levels of these chemicals are too low to cause harm, he writes.

Halden says it is impossible for the average shopper to tell which additives a product contains, and in some cases, what kind of plastic the products are made from. You may know to look for the #1 or #2 in the recycling triangle so you can toss a plastic bottle in your curbside bin, but those numbers aren't required by law to appear on all plastic products. Therefore, most nonrecyclable plastics, from cutting boards to food-storage containers and toys, aren't labeled with any number. "Consumers are therefore left either to purchase blindly, or to call up manufacturers to figure out what those items are made of," writes Alexandra Zissu, an eco-lifestyle consultant and author, in her new book The Conscious Kitchen: The New Way to Buy and Cook Food—to Protect the Earth, Improve Your Health, and Eat Deliciously (Clarkson Potter, 2010).

Eliminating plastics from your daily life will probably be impossible. But, says Halden, "Consumers have a choice everyday to avoid products that may harm them and the environment. Voting in the supermarket with your pocketbook could go a long way in changing to a more sustainable lifestyle." Cutting back on disposable, nonbiodegradable products is easy, he adds, and can reduce plastic pollution very effectively. Case in point: In its annual coastal cleanup, the Ocean Conservancy tracks which items are the most commonly found in beach cleanups. Last year, its top five included plastic bags, plastic drink bottles, bottle caps, lids, and plastic food containers and wraps—stuff we can all choose to avoid using.

•  Think reusable. You may already bring reusable bags to the store, but you can also use reusable bags for fresh produce and bulk items, rather than relying on the store's flimsy produce bags. And keep other reusable items on hand. Take a set of real silverware to work for takeout lunches, and purchase some reusable drinking straws (another culprit of beach pollution, according to the Ocean Conservancy). Or give up straws altogether.

•  Stock up on canning jars. Zissu likes them because they can be used to store virtually everything, are easy to find in every grocery and hardware store, and can go from cabinet to freezer without a hitch. Invest in a jar funnel to make filling them easier. If you need something lightweight for sandwiches or salads, buy stainless steel containers. However, "Acidic stuff is not supposed to be stored overnight in stainless steel," says Zissu. Such long-term exposure can cause elements like chromium and nickel to leach out.

•  Pay attention to packaging. "Chemicals in plastic are more likely to migrate into foods with high fat content like cheese or meat," she says. Unfortunately, trying to find either food not suffocating in plastic wrap at the grocery store is difficult. She recommends at least buying meat that isn't sitting on a foam tray—and tell your butcher you'd rather have your meat wrapped in wax paper than plastic (if you don't get vocal, things may never change). Once you get plastic-wrapped products home, transfer them to glass containers—important because plastic cling wraps may be made from PVC, a type of vinyl softened with phthalates. Whenever you can, buy products in recyclable or reusable containers, such as cardboard cartons or glass jars. "Don't bother being obsessive," Zissu writes. "The point is to—when you can—minimize exposure to questionable chemicals that build up in our bodies over time, as well as to avoid being involved with the environmental impact of their manufacture and disposal."

•  Avoid vinyl. It contains phthalates, and its production releases pollutants into the environment. Especially avoid it in toys or anything else a child might put in his or her mouth, and in shower curtains (the heat causes chemicals to be released into your household air).

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