For years, plastics have been something we haven’t thought much about because of their convenience, durability and ease-of-use. More recently, scientists and doctors have conducted research on plastics and have found conclusively that plastics pose numerous health risks of which we should each be made aware for our own safety. Dr. Lon Sherman, M.D., M.P.H. serves as a health advisor to Recology Solutions, Inc. He has a strong interest in public health issues with a specific concern on how environmental changes may affect human health. Dr. Sherman has provided information below regarding phthalates and bisphenol A, two of the potentially more harmful chemicals in the products we tend to use as consumers on a regular basis.
These chemicals are called plasticizers and are used to make PVC (polyvinyl chloride) plastic more flexible. These chemicals are known to leach into foods that we ingest particularly when those food products contain fats and are exposed to heating processes.
Many plastic-wrapped foods in markets, such as meats and cheeses, are wrapped in specially manufactured PVC that is often labeled as “#3 plastic.” In order to make PVC plastic more flexible, manufacturers often add chemicals called plasticizers. These chemicals, known as phthalates, can leach out of the PVC into the wrapped food, especially when such products contain fat or are heated. According to the Human Toxome Project which is a subgroup of the Environmental Working Group (EWG) based in Washington D.C., phthalates like bisphenol A have strong evidence that they can modify hormonal activity and have adverse effects on reproduction, fertility and birth defects as shown in animal studies. Phthalates have been classified as probable human carcinogens by the EPA and prohibited for use in cosmetics by the European Union because of human health concerns.
According to the EWG, current chemical regulations in the United States do not require that new or existing chemicals be tested for their ability to disrupt the hormone system. As a result, numerous consumer products are manufactured using chemicals suspected of causing hormone disruption. Use of hormone disrupting chemicals creates potential harm to ourselves but also to fish and wildlife that are also exposed to these chemicals and eventually make there way into our food chain.
The Environmental Working Group suggests that the best way to reduce exposures to hormone disrupting chemicals such as bisphenol A and phthalates is to avoid using them in the first place. By eliminating these chemicals at the source, we prevent human exposures from consumer products and limit fish and wildlife exposure. As the EWG proposes, for truly broad change, we need to update federal regulations. Updated chemical regulations should ensure that chemicals used in the United States be safe for people especially infants and children as well as for the environment. Before federal regulations are mandated, you can try to promote your health by using products that do not contain hormone-disrupting chemicals.
Bisphenol A (BPA) is a chemical compound belonging to the phenol class of aromatic organic compounds. Early investigations in search of a synthetic estrogen attempted to use BPA but were replaced by diethylstilbestrol (DES) that was found to be more powerful than estrogen itself. DES was subsequently found to be carcinogenic. Bisphenol A is currently used in the manufacture of many consumer products including water and food containers as well as coatings for food cans and in plastic baby bottles. Leaching from the linings of canned foods and baby bottles in particular can lead to significant exposure to infants.
Government regulatory agencies worldwide including the United States express the view that with normal use of these products, there is no scientific evidence for harm however environmental groups have expressed concern that BPA has potentially serious risk to human health. Scientifically BPA is known to activate estrogen receptors causing physiological effects in the body similar to that of estrogens. BPA has been associated with serious health issues including breast and prostate cancer, reduced sperm activity and associated infertility, obesity and neurotoxicity among others.
Because of these concerns, governmental agencies are beginning to review the safety of the use of BPA. For example, Canada has planned research assessments of BPA beginning this year. Other countries are aware of the potential health risk with research in progress at this time. The matter of public health concern in regard to exposure to bisphenol A remains controversial with continued debate as to what is considered a safe level of exposure in the general population particularly infants and young children.
Based upon the comments above and other evidence, Recology Solutions is proposing some simple rules to follow:
- Avoid using any plastic products in contact with your food that can be identified as having #3, #6, or #7 within the recycling symbol.
- Avoid reheating any food in any plastic container in the microwave. There is a possibility that the container may leach harmful chemicals into the food that you eat.
- Avoid bringing plastic food wrap into contact with food in the microwave.
- Avoid eating any hot food that has come in contact with anything that is made from Styrofoam including trays, take out containers, coffee cups, etc. Several cities have already banned the use of Styrofoam (polystyrene) products for its carcinogenic effects when in contact with hot foods.
- Avoid drinking water that has been exposed to heat (sunlight, etc.) in a disposable water bottle
- Avoid re-using disposable water bottles as chemicals may leach from the plastic into the drinking water