Understanding the Truth About Plastics Can Save Your Life




When CBS-TV’s 60 Minutes reporter Leslie Stahl reported on the chemical family known as phthalates (pronounced THAL-ates) in 2010, she hit on the most consternating facts about this chemical family and that of all things plastic in our lives: Simply, plastics are so essential to modern existence that it is humanly impossible to avoid them. Plastics contain food and beverages, are in clothing and are even inside us as medical devices.

Humans aren’t the only ones affected, either. In the world’s seven seas exist five gyres, giant vortexes in the Atlantic, Pacific and Indian oceans, where garbage from land and seagoing vessels accumulates. The largest, the northern Pacific gyre, covers about 270,000 square miles. Tiny bits of plastic from North America and Asia are drawn in by currents and winds to a circulating mass that is largely unseen from ships and planes (plastic items physically break down over time, even if their base chemicals remain intact). Those bits are ingested by aquatic life, some of which make up the commercial fish stocks.

For those who believe their hair loss might be related in some way to manmade chemicals, this is sobering news. (Note: No real evidence exists that it does, other than the direct and ill-advised application of harsh dyes and relaxers.) But the worries about plastics ingested into the body — through skin contact, foods and beverages — go much further. Widely distributed evidence, pro and con, alternately suggests that chemicals in plastics do or do not cause cancer, birth defects, the rise in autism and premature puberty in girls. In the disturbing 60 Minutes piece, the presence of phthalates is claimed by some doctors to cause, in utero, hypospadias, a condition of the male urethra that adversely affects where urine exits the body. Incidence of this condition reportedly doubled between the 1970s and the 1990s; however, the validity of surveillance studies on the condition isn’t fully proven. It is further suspected (but also not proven) of causing low sperm counts in men along with low testosterone levels.

Are plastics dangerous or not?

Immediately after the 60 Minutes story aired, the chemical industry fought back. Claiming no definitive science exists to prove these facts, which is technically true, several trade associations issued public statements debunking the television news magazine’s report. So who to believe?

Proving or disproving claims from either side is exceptionally difficult. First, let’s define what “plastics” really are (notice how we have so far and will throughout avoid all obvious references to the movie The Graduate — except we just did).

Plastics are a broad range of synthetic or semisynthetic solids, typically polymers. They come in two types, those that once formed remain in that form (thermosets) and those that can be molded multiple times (thermoplastics). Raw materials used to make plastic are primarily derived from petroleum and natural gas.

The two components of plastics that cause the most alarm currently are phthalates and bisphenol-A, or BPA. Phthalates are added to make hard plastics more pliable (as with children’s toys), as is BPA, which is also part of how cash register receipts are printed and therefore in nearly daily contact with everyone who makes a retail purchase.

But the kinds of maladies that are suspected of having a plastic or chemical cause are those that largely include hormonal or endocrine disruption, in utero, in early childhood and possibly well into adulthood. The problem is the complex human body interacts with a multivariate world. It is virtually impossible to do human testing to determine for certain if one, several or all of these have an effect on anyone.

What we can consider, however, is this: Some chemicals are absolutely known to adversely affect human health past a certain level of exposure. Asbestos, for example, is proven to be the single root cause of mesothelioma, a fatal lung disease. But where is the “safe” level of asbestos? Almost everyone has been in a building with some in it? The same question can be asked of every other manmade chemical: At what level of exposure can it hurt us?

Minimizing the risk of plastics

It’s a vast problem that is largely undefined and impossible to avoid. The best advice from the experts falls along the lines of limitation and mitigation. Health advocates such as Dr. Andrew Weil (DrWeil.com) and the Centers for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI.com) offer the following suggestions:

  • Minimize the use of plastics in microwaves. If the food comes packaged in plastic intended for microwave use, microwave it only once. To err on the safe side, empty the product into a glass or ceramic container and cover it with a paper towel, not plastic wrap.
  • For packing sandwiches and appropriate other foods, use wax paper in place of plastic wrap.
  • Avoid processed foods altogether, as they necessarily come into contact with many elements in shipping, storage, processing and packaging. Meals made from unprocessed foods are much more in your control and therefore have minimal exposure to plastics or chemicals.
  • Avoid seafood that is higher up on the food chain, including octopus, mahimahi and tuna. These eat smaller fish, which eat tiny fish, which eat tiny particles of plastic in those five ocean gyres. Mercury and tiny bits of plastic can make their way up the food chain, right to your table. Lower on the food chain (and full of beneficial omega-3 fatty acids) are sardines, herring, anchovies and mackerel. Salmon falls in the middle.
  • Use glass or aluminum bottles for water or other beverages. The Nalgene brand bottle is free of BPA but remains a plastic (it is largely embraced as the best choice in flexible containers).
  • For children’s toys, consider those made with natural fabrics, wood and metal materials first.
  • Carry your own cloth grocery bags instead of grocers’ plastic bags.
  • Use a wooden cutting board, albeit carefully to avoid cross-contamination between uncooked meat and food that will not be cooked, such as fresh salad ingredients.

The debate on plastics is likely to rage on years into the future. For your own piece of mind, it might just be the smartest path to avoid them to the best of your abilities, wherever possible, particularly in your home.