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Is it time for us to reconsider whether plastics are truly harmful, or do we need to step up our vigilance about plastic exposure? Read on to learn about the most recent evidence on BPA and other plastics, and why you should continue to be diligent about avoiding exposure to these ubiquitous chemicals.
The great industry cover-up of harmful plastics
The adverse health effects of plastic chemicals have been known by scientists for decades. Bisphenol A (BPA) is perhaps the most infamous plastic chemical; it appears in hard polycarbonate plastic water bottles, dental sealants, the lining of tin cans, and on cash register receipts, just to name a few sources. BPA has been linked to a slew of health problems, including insulin resistance and type 2 diabetes (1), cardiovascular disease (2), asthma (3), cancer (4), liver damage (5), and ADHD (6).
The $375 billion plastics industry is not happy about studies demonstrating the endocrine-disrupting effects of their products. In recent years, the American Chemistry Council has teamed up with plastics manufacturers to launch Big Tobacco-style campaigns, complete with many of the same scientists and consultants who worked for Big Tobacco, aiming to discredit disturbing scientific research and cast doubt on the dangers of plastics in consumer goods (7). These industries use dirty tactics to produce research that favors their products, crush scientific opposition, and sway public opinion regarding the perceived safety of plastics. The industry clearly has profit, rather than the public’s best interest, in mind.
The PR efforts of the plastic and chemical industries have led to public confusion about the safety of plastics and have obstructed the development of regulations for plastic chemicals in the United States. Who should we trust, industry or unbiased scientific research? I think, given the large body of peer-reviewed, third-party research that continues to be published on the harmful health effects of plastics, we should do everything we can to limit our exposure to them.
The research continues to be clear: Plastics are making us sick
Despite the best efforts of the chemical industry to obscure the dangerous truth about plastics, scientists continue to churn out research linking chemicals in plastics to significant health problems. Recent research indicates that, in addition to promoting chronic conditions such as diabetes and heart disease, BPA also harms male and female fertility. It inhibits sperm motility by decreasing levels of ATP in sperm cells, while also impairing proteins that facilitate fertilization and embryonic development (8). BPA also damages female reproductive organs, inhibits embryo implantation into the uterine wall, and impairs the female reproductive cycle (9). Furthermore, we have recently learned that BPA has harmful effects at both high and very low doses (10).
Phthalates, another ubiquitous plastic chemical found in children’s toys, vinyl, and personal care products, also continue to be associated with a wide range of adverse health effects. Exposure to phthalates is associated with DNA damage in human sperm and lowered testosterone, which may contribute to infertility (11, 12). Recent research also demonstrates that phthalates impair cognitive development and promote allergic disorders in children (13, 14).
We have also learned that both BPA and phthalates have epigenetic health effects; this means that BPA induces alterations in gene expression that can be passed down through multiple generations. Parents’ BPA exposure thus has the potential to cause health problems in their children, and possibly even their grandchildren (15, 16).
As consumer awareness of the harmful effects of BPA and phthalates has increased, BPA and phthalate-free products have become increasingly available. But are these products really any better? Alarmingly, current evidence suggests that these alternative plastic products contain chemicals that may be just as harmful, if not worse, than BPA and phthalates themselves.
A study published in Environmental Health indicates that almost all plastics, including BPA- and phthalate-free products, release chemicals with estrogenic activity (17). Bisphenol S (BPS) and triphenyl phosphate (TPP) are two chemicals often found in BPA-free products. Items containing these chemicals have been marketed as “safe” alternatives to BPA-containing plastics, but it turns out that BPS has endocrine-disrupting effects that are very similar to BPA, and TPP is even more estrogenic than BPA (18, 19)!
How have plastics manufacturers managed to get away with using increasingly toxic chemicals in their products, all the while marketing them as “healthy, BPA-free” alternatives? This practice is made possible by the FDA, which presumes chemicals to be “innocent until proven guilty.” This means that BPA-free plastic alternatives are not tested for other potentially toxic compounds before becoming available to consumers, making consumers the lab rats in one enormous science experiment.
Is EA-free the new BPA-free?
While the BPA-free label was once all the rage, the growing evidence of the dangers of BPA-free plastics has led to the development of a new plastics label: EA-free. EA stands for “estrogenic activity,” and the EA-free label on plastic products indicates that they have been found to be free of harmful estrogenic activity. Theoretically, this could help solve the mystery of whether your BPA-free water bottle contains other estrogenic chemicals. However, while the label sounds good in theory, it has not translated to improved quality standards. Plastics manufacturers have been taking advantage of the EA-free label and engaging in misleading marketing. For example, a corporation called Eastman Chemical has been marketing one of its products, Tritan plastic, as EA-free, even though third-party testing found that Tritan contains other estrogenic chemicals. Unfortunately, Eastman has been able to continue advertising its product as a “healthy, BPA-free” alternative by designing its own research studies (which, unsurprisingly, find Tritan to be safe) and by throwing its weight around in court, effectively crushing scientific opposition (20).
So, what are we to do about this plastic situation? Given the available evidence, I recommend that people try to avoid all types of plastics, even ones labeled as EA-free. At this point, it’s just not possible to tell which plastics do and don’t have estrogenic activity, and given the abundant evidence on the harmful health effects of chemicals in plastics, I think it’s better to be safe than sorry.
Tips for reducing your exposure to plastics
- Use glass cups for drinking.
- Instead of plastic water bottles, use stainless steel or glass.
- Use glass containers for food storage.
- Never heat food in plastic containers.
- Use parchment paper or beeswax fabric instead of plastic wrap.
- Avoid canned foods, as the linings typically contain BPA or a BPA alternative.
- Read labels on cosmetics and personal care products, and avoid those that contain phthalates in the ingredients list.
- Skip the receipt, as most have a BPA coating.
- Choose wood or fabric toys for children instead of plastic.
Now I’d like to hear from you. What steps do you take to avoid plastic? Are there some things you have difficulty finding alternatives for? Let us know in the comments below!