The Dangers of BPA-Free (and Other) Plastics
SEPTEMBER 25, 2018 by DR. HEATHER MODAY, MD
Learn about the health risks posed by BPA-free plastics and other widespread varieties.
One particular topic that seems to draw a lot of confusion with the patients at our practice, and the one we will focus on today, is why we should avoid plastics whenever possible, including BPA-free plastic. Though this article focuses on plastic, it will provide useful tools you can use to sift through a lot of the marketing hype behind many products so you can make a more informed decision without getting overwhelmed.
Why plastics, anyways?
There is no question that the invention of plastics has had huge benefits for many industries. Whether we are talking about automobiles, medicine, buildings, computers, or plumbing, it is clear that plastics have a multitude of uses given their unique properties of being low cost, easy to manufacture, versatile, pliable, and strong. The plastic industry is so large, in fact, that it is expected to reach a market worth of $655 billion by 2020.
And while without question we have benefitted tremendously from the invention of plastics, recent research has shown that there are potential health consequences associated with long-term use.
The Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA), which was created in 1976, is the main legislation created with the purpose of monitoring the safety of new chemicals. Unfortunately, it is woefully ineffective for a variety of reasons.
The EPA is the agency that is supposed to enforce the TSCA, however lack of government funding and the red tape that exists to review each and every chemical for safety gets in the way. Of the 84,000 chemicals currently produced worldwide, approximately 200 have been studied for safety. Also, there were many chemicals grandfathered in prior to 1976 that were never evaluated. Even worse, since the act was established in 1976, safety studies produced by the chemical companies have been sparse and do nothing to address potential long-term health consequences. Generally, it’s not in the chemical companies financial interest to spend a lot of money on safety studies, especially if they don’t have to according to law.
What this means for consumers is that unless a chemical is going to poison us quickly and obviously, then it is most likely going to make it to market without any safety oversight. So chemicals in this country are generally innocent until proven guilty, so its our job as citizens to protect ourselves.
The dangers of plastics…
When discussing plastics, it is important to keep in mind that there are many different chemicals that fall under the term “plastic.” Of course, we are most familiar with BPA since it has been in the news fairly consistently, but there are many other plastics and the research on their health effects is still in its infancy.
In this article, we will focus on three of the most studied chemicals found in plastics: Bisphenol A (BPA), Phthalates, and Polybrominated Diphenyl Ester’s (PBDE’s).
BPA was initially studied in the 1930’s for hormone replacement therapy, as the chemical was found to have estrogen-like properties. Though it didn’t make it to market as a pharmaceutical, it was later incorporated into many plastics as a hardener and by 2009 2.2 million tons were in production.
BPA can be found in plastic water bottles, kitchenware, packaging, canned food lining, dental materials, healthcare equipment, thermal paper, receipts, and in children’s toys, among other places. As you can see, BPA is everywhere.
This is cause for concern because of the fact that BPA can function as a synthetic estrogen, which studies indicate can disrupt our endocrine (hormonal) system. Studies have shown that BPA can play a role in male and female infertility, PCOS, and certain cancers like breast and prostate cancer. Driven by consumer demand, BPA is being phased out of production in many products and replaced by a chemical called BPS.
Unfortunately, there is no reliable safety data on BPS, so there is no way of knowing if this chemical is more or less harmful than BPA.
Pro tip: The process of a chemical company replacing a potentially harmful chemical with a new, unknown chemical is called a Regrettable Substitution. This does NOT mean that the new substance is safe; in fact, it could be more harmful. We just don’t know. So when you see a plastic water bottle that says “BPA Free,” it may still not be safe for use for long term prolonged use especially fro food and beverages.
Phthalates are plasticizers that add flexibility and resilience to plastics. Phthalates are also found in personal-care products such as perfumes, lotions, cosmetics, and shampoo, as well as some pharmaceutical products, lacquers, varnishes, and coatings. As a result of the widespread use of these chemicals in personal-care products, human exposure is extensive.
Exposure to phthalates is a health concern for many reasons. A study out of Harvard showed that women with the highest amount of phthalates in their urine were 60% more likely to have a miscarriage by 20 weeks than those with the lowest concentrations. That’s huge! Pregnant women with high phthalate exposure are also at an increased risk for anemia and preeclampsia.
And it’s not just women, men who have higher amounts of phthalates show impaired sperm count and function. Other studies have shown that phthalate exposure can increase the risk of developing asthma, eczema, thyroid disease and other metabolic disorders.
PBDE’s (aka flame retardants)
PBDE’s are chemicals that were introduced in the 1960’s to serve as flame retardants for plastics, foam, and textiles. This means that PBDE’s can be found in much of your furniture, including couches, mattresses, and rugs, as well as children’s car seats and nursing pillows.
What makes PBDE’s particularly dangerous is that they are fat-soluble, meaning that they bind to fat within the body. When this happens, it is very difficult for the body to get rid of the toxin, meaning that it will accumulate in the body over time.
In animals, PBDE’s have been shown to be toxic to the thyroid and developing brain. They have also been associated with estrogen-like properties, similar to BPA, as well as being linked to the development of lymphoma and breast cancer.
How to reduce your exposure to toxic plastics
In our culture, it’s probably not realistic to think we can completely eliminate plastics from our everyday use, but we can limit our exposure to the sources that lead to the most exposure.
Here is what we recommend:
- Purchase a reusable glass or stainless steel water bottle. Avoid all reusable plastic water bottles, even if they say BPA-free. If you are in a pinch and need to buy a plastic water bottle while traveling, don’t leave it in the heat, as that will increase the release of plastics into your water.
- Replace all plastics in the kitchen. This is especially important for anything that gets heated, such as storage containers, bowls, plates, cups, spatulas, etc. Make sure to never heat food up in a Ziploc bag, cling wrap, plastic plates, or anything similar, as this will dramatically increase your exposure. Use instead silicone spatulas, wood spoons, stainless steel tongs. Also you can cook in parchment, warp food in waxed paper and use aluminum foil. Store food in glass, pyrex and stainless steel containers .
- Replace all cosmetics, lotions/shampoos, and perfumes with safe alternatives. See the EWG (Environmental Working Group) website for their database called Skin Deep. This is a very comprehensive list of safe alternatives to these products.
- If purchasing new furniture, baby pajamas, clothing, rugs, drapes etc, look for flame-retardant free products. Vaccuum frequently to remove airborne flame retardants found in household dust.
- Make sure to air out your house and car daily, especially in the summer. Your furniture and car will off-gas PBDE’s throughout the day and especially in the heat.
- Avoid handling receipts when possible. The majority of receipts are coated in BPA, which is readily absorbed in the skin.