Lately I have been reading about the dangers of plastic water bottles. The two chemicals that are considered most dangerous are bisphenol A (BPA) and phthalates. According to The Journal of the Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies:
There is also now abundant research that links BPA and phthalate exposure to such human health concerns as deformities of the male and female genitals; premature puberty in females; decreased sperm quality; and increases in breast and prostate cancers, infertility, miscarriages, obesity, type 2 diabetes, allergies and neurological problems, like attention deficit hyperactivity disorder.
BPA occurs not only in plastic containers but also in the epoxy coatings that line cans. Consumers had no way to know which cans contained BPA until 2014, when the Environmental Working Group (EWG) analyzed 252 brands of canned foods and found that 78 (31%) used BPA epoxy linings for all their products; 31 brands (12%) used BPA-free linings for all their canned products, and 34 brands (14%) used BPA-free linings in at least one of their products. Some manufacturers have come out with BPA-free plastic, but unfortunately that is not safe either. Testing on BPA-free plastics concluded that
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 did BPA-containing products. (If something has estrogenic activity (EA), it’s an endocrine disruptor.)
Elevated estrogen levels increase the risk of breast cancer, but estrogen also plays a role in a mind-boggling array of other problems. Too much or too little, particularly in utero or during early childhood, can alter brain and organ development, leading to disease later in life.
After reading the research that found that almost all commercially available plastic products leached chemicals with estrogenic activity (EA), I contacted one of the co-authors of the study, and a leader in this research, George D. Bittner, PhD. Dr. Bittner is Professor of Neuroscience at the University of Texas, Austin, and CEO of CertiChem, a laboratory in Austin that tested a wide range of plastic containers for EA. I had always heard that the public could use the recycling codes on the bottoms of plastic containers to know which ones were safe. I wanted to know whether this new research meant that all plastic food containers could be unsafe regardless of recycling code. Dr. Bittner said that some recycling codes indicate plastics made from molecules that have EA and can never be made EA-free. Some of the other codes indicate plastics that could be made EA-free, but they aren’t at this time. He added that it is possible to make plastic containers without EA, and his company has plans to do so. He said that there are a few products on the market already that claim to be EA-free, but that this claim was sometimes false. For now, the safest course would be to avoid all plastic food and beverage containers and to start pressuring retailers to offer EA-free plastics.
Unfortunately, even if plastic containers were made safe for humans, they would still be unsafe for the environment. Petroleum-based plastics don’t decompose using bacteria the way organic material like food scraps and lawn trimmings do. Plastic breaks down through photodegradation, which is the use of sunlight. Plastics buried in a landfill rarely see the light of day and can last for 1000 years, but in the ocean, discarded plastic breaks down much faster. That sounds good, but unfortunately, the remaining small pieces of plastic contain toxic chemicals that end up in the guts of animals or washed up on shorelines, where humans are likely to come into contact with them. Another problem is that plastics are made from byproducts of petroleum refining and natural gas processing; in other words, fossil fuels. In 2010, about 2.7% of all the petroleum and about 1.7% of all the natural gas consumed in the U.S. were used for making plastic, as well as about 1.7% of total electricity. We should be moving away from fossil fuels.
Two possible solutions that are commonly discussed are making biodegradable plastic and recycling. While these ideas may be an improvement, they are not really good solutions. Biodegradable plastics don’t decompose unless conditions are just right, and even when they do, they can still take many months, which is plenty of time to endanger wildlife. The problem with recycling is that it takes huge amounts of energy, and the process usually degrades the plastic to the point that it can no longer be used for food-grade products.
The best solution, and one we can all do, is to reduce the amount of plastic products we are buying and using. This will be safer for us, safer for the environment, and usually cheaper as well. Following are some ideas. (I realize that they sound overwhelming, but you can just do whichever ones seem most important at first, and add others slowly, when you are comfortable with them.)
- In place of a plastic water bottle, you can use a glass bottle with a silicon sleeve so it won’t break, or a stainless steel bottle. (Some steel bottles are lined with plastic, so check to make sure yours isn’t). If your tap water is contaminated, buy a water filter and use it to refill your bottle.
- You can use reusable grocery bags instead of paper or plastic; some localities have already stopped offering plastic bags, and some make you pay for paper bags.
- Stop buying foods that are packaged in plastics; instead, you can shop at farmers’ markets and bring reusable bags.
- Don’t get takeout food or drinks in Styrofoam containers; if you have to get takeout foods, bring your own containers.
- Stop using plastic food storage containers at home; switch to glass or stainless steel.
- Stop using plastic wrap (but be aware that aluminum foil isn’t safe either. If it comes into contact with hot foods, it can leach into the food and cross the blood-brain barrier. It has been linked to neurotoxicity, hormone disruption and Alzheimer’s disease). Instead of plastic or foil, you can buy reusable food wrap made with beeswax.
- You can also replace plastic baggies with beeswax bags or compostable, unbleached paper bags.
- Use glass and metal dishes, silverware and cookware in place of plastic.
- Try to use fewer plastic trash bags. You can reuse any grocery or shopping bags you have on hand, and compact your trash so you need fewer bags. Maybe you can compost yard trimmings and food scraps instead of putting them in the garbage.
- Buy wooden or metal toys for children instead of plastic; they are safer and last longer.
- Consider using cloth diapers instead of disposable.
- Recycle whatever you can.