Phthalates, BPA and other plastic additives have been shown to interfere with the endocrine systems of humans and lab animals, harming the reproductive systems of children, and raising cancer and diabetes risks, potentially even raising cancer risks for future generations.
These synthetic plastic compounds are added to many consumer products to make plastics more sturdy (BPA in polycarbonate) or more pliable (phthalates) or even as stabilizers and preservatives in body products and cosmetics. Their use is so pervasive in modern life, they may even come to us in our water. (The American Chemistry Council, the industry association, says plastics are safe and that studies showing plastics cause health problems are flawed.)
Still, it's possible to reduce one's exposure by using phthalate-free products, avoiding synthetic fragrances and cooking and cleaning in ways that guard against plastic chemicals seeping into food.
Some of these practices will help protect people from potential leaching from less studied plastics and BPA alternatives, which some studies* now show can negatively affect human health by mimicking estrogenic activity, the same way BPA and phthalates interfere with human body functions. (The ACC disagrees.)
Here are some tips for avoiding phthalates, BPA and BPA alternatives.
- Choose body products that are unscented or scented with natural essences or botanicals, especially for children, who may be more sensitive to these chemical additives because their systems are still developing. Be aware that the word “fragrance” in the ingredient list often hides synthetic phthalates, unless the product also is labeled as "phthalate free."
- Avoid products such as children's backpacks and lunch boxes, bags and accessories made with PVC plastic, which contains phthalates. A tip off: Products made with PVC are typically shiny.
- Buy hoses made of rubber instead of plastic. This option is commonly available at many home improvement stores. Plastic hoses are suspected of leaching when they lay in the sun outside.
- Buy toys made of wood and other natural raw materials. Look for those that are made of safer plastics — those labeled #1 or #2 (while being aware that emerging science could implicate these plastics as well). Because it's difficult to completely avoid plastic, consider the product use. For example, toddler toys that may end up being mouthed would cause more concern.
- Store and heat food in containers made of glass, metal or other non-reactive materials to avoid BPA in plastic. Here too, you can look for the safer #1 or #2 plastics for cold storage. Leaching of plastic additives is more likely when food is hot or the container is heated.
- Be aware that many, if not most, canned goods are lined with a plastic resin that contains BPA. Some brands have stopped the use of the BPA-lined resin (Muir Glen, Eden Organics), and note this on labels. Others have switched to glass containers, which avoid the problem altogether. Studies suggest that canned acidic foods are most likely to activate the leaching of the BPA.
- Avoid using plastic wrap to cover food heated in the microwave.
- Use glass baby bottles, and if using plastic polycarbonate (#7 plastic) for any type of container, do not use it for warm liquids.
- Watch out for plastic sippy cups, even those made without BPA may still have estrogenic compounds. Keep these out of the sun and do not use them for warm liquids.
- Do not wash plastics in the dishwasher
- Avoid dust from vinyl products such as miniblinds.
Compiled with information from the Centers for Disease Control, The National Institutes for Health, ToxTown, Pediatric Environmental Health Specialty Units, Safer Chemicals.org and the Environmental Working Group .
*The 2011 study "Most Plastic Products Release Estrogenic Chemicals: A Potential Health Problem That Can Be Solved" found that many varieties of plastics triggered "estrogenic activity" that could contribute to disease and reproductive development problems. This study, by scientists with commercial labs in Austin as well as two professors, from UT-Austin and Georgetown University Medical Center in Washington DC, reported that even a much-touted replacement plastic for BPA, the BPA-free Tritan also triggered "estrogenic activity."
Needless to say, this report showing that the even the industry's "safer" plastic was meh, not so safe, inflamed the argument over plastic's endocrine disrupting qualities.
A March 2014 article in Mother Jones, "The Scary New Evidence on BPA-free Plastics," refers to the 2011 study as shaking up the industry, which rebutted findings. The manufacturer of Tritan backed its own study showing that its BPA-free plastic did cause "androgencity" or "estrogenicity."
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