You’ve probably been reading this newsletter and other natural health articles for a while and believe you are pretty savvy about safe plastics. You may make sure to buy BPA free baby bottles for a baby shower, buy only BPA free cups and dishes for your toddlers, or are diligent about which plastics you use for food storage and drink containers. You’ve probably noticed the increased selection of BPA free plastics everywhere you shop. Unfortunately, there is no plastic that is completely safe. All plastics leach chemicals! it’s just that some leach less than others. No plastic is completely free of harmful chemicals, and the term BPA free does not mean a product is safe to use.
Xenoestrogens are chemical compounds used in the manufacturing of many types of plastics. In the human body they plug into the same receptors that estrogen should occupy, thus disrupting the endocrine (hormone) system. BPA refers to the chemical Bisphenol A. This is the most well known xenoestrogen, but there are many others. In 2004, the CDC found BPA in the urine of 93% of the 2,157 people tested between the ages of 6 and 85. Other studies have found up to 97% of the US population carries BPA in their system. BPA has also been found to be passed through breast milk.
All xenoestrogens carry similar risks although BPA and phthalates have been the most studied. Polypropylene and polyethylene (PP, HDPE and LDPE) have long been touted as the safest plastics for food containers. However, these plastics often contain xenoestrogens called nonylphenols which have been proven to leach into water and milk. Phthalates are also present in many plastics.
Hazards of BPA and xenoestrogens:
- Miscarriage and birth defects
- Behavior problems and hyperactivity
- Altered brain structure
- Precocious (early puberty) and disrupted reproductive function
- Decreased sperm count and impaired fertility in men and women
- Prostate and breast cancer, including breast cancers being found in pre-pubertal girls.
- Diabetes, heart disease and obesity.
- Altered immune function
Earlier this year, researchers bought 450 plastic containers from multiple retailers. Many but not all were labeled BPA free. The researchers used salt water and alcohol as solvents to extract xenoestrogens from the plastic. They also exposed some of the plastics to stressors such as UV radiation (mimicking sunlight), microwaves, and high heat using an autoclave duplicating the stresses plastics would be subjected to in the typical home. The result:
“Almost all commercially available plastic products we sampled, independent of the type of resin, product or retail source, leached chemicals having reliably detectable estrogenic activity (EA), including those advertised as BPA-free. In some cases, BPA-free products released chemicals having more EA than BPA-containing products.â€
The researchers concluded that many plastics were mis-characterized as EA free because they were not tested with multiple solvents nor subjected to everyday stressors. In many cases, while able to determine that EA was present, the researchers were unable to determine the compound responsible. They also stated there are compounds available now, at similar costs that are free of EA and could be used to eliminate a hazard present in most plastic containers that come in contact with food and water.
What you can do to minimize exposure to xenoestrogens:
- Use glass wherever possible. Canning jars are extremely versatile, although they don’t freeze well. There are now glass food storage containers available that are great for the freezer.
- If you use baby bottles, use glass.
- When using glass containers, make sure that the food does not touch a plastic lid.
- If you must buy something in plastic, food drink or personal care products, repackage into a glass container when you get home.
- Never heat plastic in the microwave, put it in the dishwasher or even hand wash in very hot water.
- Don’t drink coffee, tea or other hot beverages from a plastic or styrofoam container.
- Don’t use plastic wrap. Use parchment or wax paper. If you must use baggies, place only cold food in them.
- Stainless steel may also be an option although that has been found to possibly leach toxic metals, especially when exposed to acidic foods.
- Consider corn based plastics. These are becoming more common, but they come from GMO corn which is saturated with pesticides.
- Pressure legislators to mandate EA free plastic for all plastics which may come into contact with food.
- Pressure manufacturers to switch to EA plastics and to honestly disclose components of all plastics. However, even new EA plastics could, in the long run, turn out to be harmful.
It is nearly impossible to avoid plastics today. Even many whole, unprocessed foods such as meat and vegetables are packaged in plastic. However, making as many changes as you can may dramatically improve your health. A small study (5 families, 20 total participants) in 2010 analyzed the presence of BPA and phthalates prior to and after just 3 days of near total avoidance of plastics. All families received the same foods, prepared the same way for the 3 days. Significant reductions in these chemicals were found at the end of the study and the researchers stated that removing these chemicals from food packaging would significantly decrease exposure to xenoestrogens in both children and adults.