We Live In A Plastic World
I can remember growing up in the sixties in a world which was still relatively “plastic free”. Do you remember when foods were actually packaged in glass, paper and cardboard? Do you also remember when the paper and cardboard was thicker back then? I can still remember as a boy looking at one of those “foam” cups made from polystyrene and crumbling it, it was in the late sixties, wondering what the heck it was made of!The one liter Coke bottle was made from glass a long time ago, for which I got twenty cents for when I collected them from the side of the road and brought them into the corner store. No foods were stored nor packaged in plastic, and the grocery store bags were a thick brown paper, not those flimsy plastic bags of today which you can just about “spit” through. The only toys I had as a boy which were made from plastic were those little green plastic soldiers from China. My Matchbox cars, my Triang tricycle and later on my Raleigh bicycle were all made from good solid British metal with minimal if any plastic parts. Back then, China was the word used for something you drank a cup of tea out of, not found on a sticker on just about everything you buy from a shop involving any type of plastic. Today, it is hard to find any toy which is not 100% plastic, amazing! And the scientists call it “better living through chemistry”.
I would like to believe that my great grandchildren will live in a world one day where chemistry will go green, and scientists may one day understand the serious health risks imposed on a population growing up in today’s plastic world. This article will focus on what a lot of people have been talking about – plastics in our foods, and in water – I take it you drink bottled water?. There is no “best plastic” to contain food or drink. It is my hope that this article will clarify this viewpoint. By the time you’ve finished reading, you should be closer to forming your own evaluation of plastics, and hopefully you will try to reduce your exposure and use of plastics in your everyday living.
Unlike the sixties, it amazes me that plastic today is used in contact with nearly every single packaged food. Most cardboard drink and milk containers are now even coated with plastic rather than wax. In many countries, a type of liquid plastic compound is even sprayed on both commercial and organic produce to preserve its freshness. Yes, crazy as it may seem, but in many cases plastic is even used to irrigate, mulch, wrap, and transport organic foods. “Organic” bananas come from overseas South American wholesalers with a fungicide containing sticky plastic wrapping the cut stem to protect the bananas from a black mold. These so called organic bananas themselves are wrapped in a plastic as they grow to prevent fruit bats from getting to them. Did you know that whenever you eat or drink things that are stored in plastic, or if you taste it, smell it, wear it, sit on it, and so on, then that plastic actually becomes a part you?
In fact, when any food gets into plastic – the plastic gets into the food and eventually you. So, quite literally, you are what you eat. . drink . . . and breathe — plastic!
The Low-Dose Threat
Plastic is everywhere in our lives because it is convenient and relatively inexpensive. It is widely regarded and advertised as safe and that it even “saves lives”. The problem with plastic is that its safety is based on an outdated science and flimsy regulations. And while it may saves lives in the short run, the record against plastic is looking quite different. Its convenience comes from being lightweight and it comes in an endless range of colors and finishes, is pliable, and is easily formed and molded. Most would say it’s a perfect material, right? But – here’s where the bad news begins. It is interesting when you consider that there between 87,000 to 100,000 chemicals in commercial production registered with the Chemical Abstracts Service (CAS) registry. Of all these chemicals, only about 200 have been tested on humans, and most never on pregnant women or children. Consider this – If you want to market a new pharmaceutical drug, you will need to convince the authorities like Medsafe or the FDA, in multiple tests over the course of many years of clinical trials that it won’t cause serious harm. If you want to sell a new sheep drench or pesticide, you will need to prove the same thing. The manufacturers have to prove the chemicals in these concoctions are “safe” and the government makes the final decision. But what if you want to market a brand new chemical, not a drug or a pesticide, just a chemical? And what if this chemical comes into contact with a young child or pregnant woman? I’m not sure about NZ, but I expect it’s much the same as in America; it is up to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to prove that it is unsafe, using whatever chemical data is supplied by the chemical manufacture, with little power to ask for more information. Chances are it was never really tested by the government at all. According to Richard Wiles, executive director of the non-profit Environmental Working Group in the USA: “It’s completely backwards”.
As bio-monitoring has improved, scientists can now detect human exposure levels of chemicals as small as one part per trillion, which is about a twentieth of a drop of water in an Olympic sized swimming pool. Scientists have also discovered that humans are carrying far more chemicals than previously thought. And because of this, for example, scientists have learned that some toxins are extremely toxic even at very low levels. Take a look at lead for example, the “safe” limit for lead (which can directly reduce a person’s IQ) has been lowered from 60 micrograms per deciliter (100mls) of blood down to 10 mcg. And that discovery was only made in 1970! Now imagine for one minute what kind of understanding we will have about heavy metals like mercury, cadmium, arsenic and lead, and not to mention all those zillions of chemicals like plastics in our blood forty years from now – in 2050. That’s right, we will have a much better understanding and will wonder how chemical manufacturers actually got away with it all those years. Better living through corruption, lies and corporate greed? The next global crisis may not be in terms of dollars, but chemical toxicity as we drown in our own man made chemical concoctions. Why not become aware of your body’s burden right now and undergo regular annual detoxification of your liver and kidneys? Try to reduce the amount of exposure you have to plastic and chemicals in your life today, I’ll talk more about this later.
Do you drink water from those plastic water bottles? Water bottles are be made from various types of plastic — polycarbonate (PC), polyethylene terephthalate (PET), Polypropylene (PP), high-density polyethylene (HDPE), low-density polyethylene (LDPE), polyvinyl chloride (PVC or vinyl), and others. All these chemicals migrate throughout the body to some degree, let’s just for now focus on just one chemical that migrates out of one plastic and that is used to make products with high use and sales profiles – BPA.
Bisphenol-A (BPA) is a chemical used in the manufacturing of many types plastics. It does its job well, and an incredible 2.7 million kgs are produced every year. The BIG problem with BPA is that it has been found to be a known source of synthetic hormones like oestrogen, and that plastics containing it can break down easily, especially when they are washed, heated or stressed in any way, allowing the chemical to leach into the food or water it is in contact with allowing it to enter the human body. BPA has been found in the urine of 93% of People in America, and I suspect this figure to be the same in Australia and NZ. BPA can mimic hormones like adrenaline and testosterone as well as oestrogen and because minuscule amounts of these powerful hormones can cause major biological changes, imagine for one moment what your body does when it is bombarded with plastics containing BPA every day!
And now think what happens to a young person whose body is still developing. Kids are particularly vulnerable to chemical BPA toxicity because their smaller bodies are developing rapidly, and because they eat and drink more foods containing BPA relative to their bodyweight than adults do. This is exactly what scientists have found, linking fetal BPA in rodents to everything from cancers, genital defects and even many and varied behavioural disorders. Could this be part of the cause of our rising epidemic of ADHD, autism, Asperger’s syndrome and similar behavioural disorders ? And it does not stop there. In 1998, Dr. Patricia Hunt, a geneticist in America, discovered that female mice dosed with BPA had serious reproductive disorders. According to Dr. Hunt, you disrupt three generations with one exposure to BPA. This is why BPA was consequently taken out of babies drinking bottles and banned in Sweden in 2008. President Obama has just called for a 30 million dollar study into BPA and human health. At last, at least somebody’s got the brains to look beyond the plastic corporate greed. Are you still using plastic baby bottles, or heat the baby’s plastic bottle in a microwave oven? You’d better not after reading this!
The list of products containing BPA is really long. In the medical industry, it is used for syringes, containers, lenses, and various dental products. The mind blowing thing about plastic is that it is regulated only if it is in contact with foods and not any of the other exposures a person might commonly experience every day at home, school, or the office. Because the government approves plastics for specific uses rather than for individual chemicals, BPA is therefore not regulated. I think that it is important to note that all exposures, no matter what origin, are cumulative. The body’s natural defenses try to breakdown toxins such as BPA as they enter. These chemicals are what we call “metabolites” and can be significantly more toxic than the original chemical itself. Have they been tested? Yawn, not really.
In 2009, two German scientists looked at whether the migration of substances from plastic packaging material into foodstuffs contributes to human exposure to man-made hormones. They analysed 20 brands of water– including nine bottled in glass and nine bottled in plastic. The researchers took water samples from the bottles and carefully tested them for the presence of any estrogenic chemicals. They then carried out a reproduction test using New Zealand mud snails to determine the source and potency of the xeno-oestrogens (substances which resemble and act like estrogen in the body). They detected estrogen contamination in 60% of the samples (12 of the 20 brands) analysed. Specifically, 78% of the plastic bottled water showed significant hormonal activity.
By breeding the New Zealand mud snail in both plastic and glass water bottles, these researchers found more than double the number of embryos in plastic bottles compared with glass bottles. Taken together, these results demonstrate widespread contamination of water with potent man-made estrogens that partly originate from compounds leaching out of the plastic packaging material. The German authors conclude: “We have identified just the tip of the iceberg in that plastic packaging may be a major source of xeno-hormone (foreign hormone) contamination of many other edible foods. Our findings provide an insight into the potential exposure to hormone-disrupting chemicals due to unexpected sources of contamination.” Are you still thirsty for a “plastic” drink ? Try drinking out of a glass or stainless steel container. It may save you from a nasty condition one day, particularly if you drink lots of bottled water.
In April 2003, a study was published about BPA accidentally killing mice that had been held in polycarbonate cages at a lab. It was found accidentally when it ruined a lab experiment that heated yeast in plastic flasks to find out if the yeast produced any estrogen-like compounds. It was discovered that BPA from the plastic flasks was the material that was estrogenic, and that it competed with the natural estrogen in a rat’s body. When a well known researcher was asked why labs still use plastics considering what it has been known since 1993 that BPA migrates and is hormonally active. The response was, “What are we supposed to do, go back to glass?” This is the state of what is still amazingly called “science”, and as is usual with all too many research scientists, the truth maybe sought, but the obvious is pretty well trampled over in the stampede to secure that all too familiar pot of gold – the lucrative funding.
The list of negative health effects associated in some way with exposure to BPA is disturbingly long. The most visible effect may be a chromosome abnormality called “aneuploid”, found in more than 5% of pregnancies. Most aneuploid fetuses die in utero. About one-third of all miscarriages are aneuploid, making it the leading known cause of pregnancy loss. Exposure to BPA has been found in addition to increase risk of breast tumors. Being one of many known hormone disruptors, BPA affects development, intelligence, memory, learning, and behavior, skeleton, body size and shape, significant increase in prostate size, prostate cancer, reduced sperm count, and both physical and mental aspects of sexuality. It may have something to do with obesity, and so many more that a separate article is required to list them all. In other words, if the fetus lives, any one or many parts of its body can be permanently affected. The problems with BPA may become evident at any age, and to reiterate, there is no shortage of research published on the negative health effects of BPA. Do you still trust that plastic bottle?
Understanding The Plastic Rating
All plastics are rated using a number system. Understanding what those numbers mean can help you do more than recycle, it can help them avoid dangerous chemicals involved with these plastics. Patients tell me often that they are concerned about plastic in their lives, particularly the plastics containing Bisphenol A.
Fortunately there are codes on the bottom of all plastics which can help the health conscientious consumer stay informed. Here is what the codes mean and a guide to which plastics should be avoided due to potential toxicity. Make sure you look underneath your plastic drink bottle, that is if you are still game to drink from one after reading this article!
Plastic # 1– Polyethylene Terephthalate (PET or PETE)
Found in many single-use plastic containers like as soft drinks bottles, mouthwashes (you don’t buy this stuff, do you?), salad dressing containers and other similar items. It is lightweight, inexpensive and easy to recycle. Number one plastics are considered safe and are not known to leach chemicals, but they are not safe for reuse so never refill any container made from this plastic. Also, never heat foods in number one plastic containers either, never. By the way, NEVER leave a plastic drink bottle in the sun, this is a sure fire way to leach chemicals into your water.
Plastic # 2 – High density polyethylene (HDPE)
This plastic is used for items like those flimsy plastic milk containers, rubbish bags, margarine tubs (yuk, buy butter) and general packaging products. It is cheap, versatile and durable. It is also easily recyclable. Number two plastic is considered safe and isn’t known to leach chemicals. But, like most plastics, it’s wise to never heat food or liquid products in them. And in addition, don’t place foods in them and then freeze them, especially hot foods.
Plastic # 3 – Polyvinyl chloride (V or PVC)
This plastic is used to make bottles for cleaning products, shower curtains, the heavier industry grade plastics and the cling wraps used to wrap your delicatessen meats and cheeses. It isn’t generally recycled. Number three plastic is not safe due to a chemical used to keep it so flexible which can leach out into your food products. This plastic has di-2-ethylhexyl phthalate in it, which is a potential carcinogen. It also contains chlorine and will release dangerous toxins if burned. Do you still want to wrap meat and cheeses and fatty meats like chicken in cling-film? You may like to look at : http://www.envirocancer.cornell.edu/research/endocrine/videos/plastics.cfm By the way – NEVER buy those cooked chickens at the supermarket wrapped in cling film. You are guaranteed to be eating chicken laced with potential xeno-oestrogens (foreign chemicals mimicking oestrogen) or carcinogens. I know they taste nice and are what you like to grab after a busy day at the office, but the chicken skin is very fatty and will gladly soak up the poisons contained in the cling film. Your choice.
Plastic # 4 – Low-density polyethylene (LDPE)
This plastic can be found in things like frozen food bags, squeezable bottles like those mayonnaise or tomato sauce containers, supermarket plastic bags and even in some clothing, carpeting and furniture upholstery. It is flexible, durable and has many applications in industry. Number four plastic isn’t known to be dangerous or leach any chemicals into consumer products. These types of plastic are not widely recycled but are recyclable.
Plastic # 5 – Polypropylene (PP)
This plastic can be found in items like tomato sauce bottles, plastic straws, pharmaceutical drug containers, some carpet and most plastic bottle caps. It has a high melting point so it is also used for containers that will hold hot liquid. Number five plastic is hazardous during production but once made, it isn’t known to leach chemicals. It is typically used in items that aren’t reused and has a high melting point, which might contribute to its sturdiness and reduced risk of leaching. Not every community can recycle number five plastic. Don’t burn # 5 – cancer potential, yuk.
Plastic # 6 – Polystyrene (PS)
This plastic is used for items that must be hard and retain their shape, like those coffee cups, opaque plastic utensils as found on your next airplane flight, some toys, take-away containers and compact disc cases. It is also used for foam insulation. Number six plastic isn’t generally recycled and is not considered safe by most experts. Benzene, a known carcinogen, is used during its production and the final product contains stuff called butadiene and styrene, both suspected carcinogens. It takes a lot of energy to produce and should be avoided, so watch out for those take-away food containers made from it. Say no to styrene, use REAL plates and cups and avoid a potential cancer risk, better safe than sorry.
Plastic # 7 – Other Plastics (Always Try To Avoid # 7 Plastics)
Number seven is an open category for any number of plastics but often contains polycarbonate. It is often found in baby bottles, those large clear water jugs, microwave containers, and those plastic eating utensils. Very few recycling programs exist for this type of plastic. Number seven plastic is widely regarded as unsafe since it has bisphenol A, a hormone disruptor which mimics estrogen and is linked to breast cancer. This plastic is known to readily leach this chemical out into food. Infant formula and canned food has tested positive for biphenyl-A after being placed in metal cans lined with number seven plastic.
Avoiding Plastic in your Life
While it’s impossible to avoid all plastics in your life entirely, it is absolutely possible to rid your diet and life of this toxic material as much as possible.
- Do you really need all those flimsy plastic bags when you go shopping? There are so many reusable bag options today. Rather than reaching for several small plastic bags in the produce section, bring your own bags or a box. Reusable grocery bags are easier to carry and you can pack more into them than in regular plastic bags. I like a few study cardboard boxes, less to carry and easier to pack and unpack.
- Do you use cling film every day? Get real; your grandmother never had such an artificial “luxury”.
- Do you use plastic throw away plates and cutlery, why not use “real” cutlery instead of plastic?
- Do you need to use plastic tablecloths and plastic aprons?
- Plastic shoes like cheap Crocs? Try real shoes, they’ll last longer and you will actually look less like an Aussie. Just joking!
- Plastic toys for your kids or the grandkids? – There are plenty of wooden options available.
- Plastic drink bottles? Try stainless steel or glass, easy. Avoid buying disposable plastic water bottles. Instead, use your own water bottle and refill it with filtered water or tap water. If you’re concerned about using plastic bottles, opt for stainless steel or glass.
- Pack your sandwiches in wax paper or use Tupperware, which is a very safe food grade plastic, they make containers of many different sizes. These guys make the safest plastics around.
- Bring your lunch container with you when you go out next time to get your Thai take-away. This way you’ll avoid using those unnecessary plastic Chinese containers, Styrofoam or plastic boxes. I do and the guy at the Thai restaurant does not mind at all.
- Plastic baby’s drink bottle? – try glass.
- Use biodegradable alternatives to plastic. There are biodegradable dog poop bags for example, and some coffee shops and cafes use biodegradable cups, utensils and containers. Products made from corn and sugar cane are easy to compost and break down over time
- Think about the other plastic items you use daily. Pens, toothbrushes, combs and other implements can come in earth-friendly forms. Next time you’re ready to toss a plastic item and buy a similar item, ask yourself if there is a better, more durable and less plastic option.
Chemicals Migrate From Plastic Into Food – It’s Unavoidable
There is a huge amount of data confirming the migration of plastics and additives in all steps of food manufacturing and processing. And in my opinion and that of many scientists, it is only a matter of time and money spent on new studies before the much more serious harm and more solid evidence is found. Because of the way of the corporate world, regulations resulting from studies may take many more decades yet to actually become law. Look how long it took the government to act with cigarette smoking; it took many decades and millions of avoidable deaths. One day smoking will be entirely banned in any public place, you will see, and I expect it to happen in our lifetime. Don’t you think it important to protect the health of yourself and loved ones right now from these plastics of which we know little about, before the solid rock hard “evidence” is there?
There is no doubt, ample evidence of the negative health effects of plastics already exists in sufficient quantity to halt the use of it in contact with all foods. More importantly, I feel that the manufacture of plastic itself must be halted for a multitude of reasons. Besides causing an endless number of human deaths, disabilities, and diseases, plastic is clogging all habitats of the world and destroying the ecosystem. Apparently, there is now 6 times more plastic than plankton floating around in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. The researcher who found this, Captain Charles Moore, Director of the Algalita Marine Research Foundation, mentioned that the ratio of plastic to zooplankton is even higher in two so-called floating plastic “garbage patches” that are each bigger than the State of Texas in the ocean. Even more startling is seeing plastic bits incorporated into the flesh of the sea animals! So what are you going to do when you go shopping from now on? That’s right, take your carry bags and say no to plastic.
You really don’t need to be an Albert Einstein to know that plastic shouldn’t contact food. Plastics containers, bags and wraps, along with those “let’s kill all those nasty germs” advertisements have become quite popular on TV. But just because they advertise these items on the TV, it does not justify their use or make them appear less harmful to the consumer.
People often ask me what the safest plastic is to microwave food in – sorry folks, plastic should never contact food, and especially the “soft” plastics with plasticizers like cling film. And in addition, you should never microwave food in general— it’s worse than putting food in plastic because it creates free radicals in the food that damage cells in your body. Microwaves also heat the plastic and not just the food, thus increasing the rate of migration of the poisons into the food. However, glass, wood, metal, and ceramics are the real things, although not all suitable for microwave ovens. If saving trees is your aim, stop using so much paper, wooden and cardboard stuff. But in the mean time, don’t further degrade the environment with more plastic and microwave radiation. Use a stove, like your grandma once did. Your use of plastic in terms of food and drinks will amaze you if you focus on how much plastic you really handle over the course of say a week. By being aware and making other choices you may well be avoiding many different potentially serious health related disorders in the future.
Wagner M & Oehlmann J (2009). Endocrine disruptors in bottled mineral water: total estrogenic burden and migration from plastic bottles. Environ Sci Pollut Res; [10.1007/s11356-009-0107-7]