Health: Health risks of plastics
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Every day we come into contact with plastics in every way imaginable, and for the most part we don’t give much thought as to whether these plastics are harmful to our health or the environment. Perhaps we should take a closer look.
Plastics are compounds made up of very long, repeating units of chemicals, called polymers. Different side units are attached to make an almost infinite variety of polymer chains. The side units and other additives create the world of plastics, from flimsy thin plastic sacks and wraps, to soft and pliable rubber, to hard plastics that withstand tremendous forces.
The making of plastics has come from natural sources such as chewing gum or shellac, modified natural sources such as rubber or collagen, and purely synthetic material such as polyvinyl chloride. Our BC ancestors used natural rubber, a polymer, for things such as balls and figurines. In the middle ages the process of making lantern “glass” by mixing milk protein with lye represented an early form of plastics.
In the 1800s Charles Goodyear earned notoriety by inventing the “vulcanization” process in which he applied heat to a mixture of rubber and sulfur, creating the first soft moldable, elastic and durable rubber.
Thermosetting plastics was a major advance in the early 1900s in which heat is applied to synthetic polymers converting them irreversibly to what we know as hard plastic, found in thousands of products and applications. Bakelite and polyvinyl chloride revolutionized product manufacturing in the 1930s and 40s.
After World War II plastics exploded into the modern era, with names like Du Pont and Dow Chemical modernizing plastic production to increase worldwide output of plastics into millions of metric tons. Plastics are now part of our everyday lives, arguably improving our lives in many ways, but is there a downside to plastics?
The Plastics Rundown
Knowing your plastics, where you are using them, and what the risks are is daunting as there are so many different plastics. They are in your home, your car, your clothing, your furniture, your bathroom and your refrigerator. Use the little recycle triangle numbers to help you use plastics wisely when it concerns health risks, and also to help recycle and keep degrading plastics out of our soil and groundwater.
Polyethylene terephthalate (PET #1) is found in plastic water and soda bottles, frozen food packages, numerous food product bottles, and polyester fibers. PET releases chemicals such as acetylaldehyde and phthalates that can disrupt hormone systems, as well as antimony, a heavy metal with strict exposure limits.
Polyethylene high density (PE-HD #2) is found in milk and detergent bottles, food storage containers and plastic bags. Polyethylene low density (PE-LD #4) is a tough and flexible plastic used in grocery and garbage bags, shrink wrap, and milk carton coatings.
Polyvinyl chloride (PVC #3) is used in shower curtains, deli and food wraps, and rigid construction materials such as water pipes. One of the most toxic plastics, it degrades into phthalates, dioxins and more, linked to all sorts of health risks including organ toxicity, cancer and reproductive problems.
Polypropylene (PP #5) is known for its high melting point, is flexible or rigid, and is found in consumer products such as yogurt or margarine containers, take out and deli containers. Polystyrene (PS #6) is foamed or rigid and it too is used in food containers such as cups, bowls, plates and cutlery.
Perhaps the most well known plastic to present health hazards is Bisphenol A (BPA), recognized as O #7 on the recycle label, which mimics the effects of the hormone estrogen and is linked to infertility and developmental damage. It is also known to cause cancer, diabetes and obesity. Billions of pounds are produced yearly and it is so common that several studies in the US show BPA is present in the urine of about 90 percent of the subjects tested.
BPA used to be common in water bottles, but more and more products have eliminated this plastic. Metal cans and infant formula cans are typically lined with BPA. We know BPA leaches into the food or liquid in the container, and studies show heat such as boiling water will increase the rate of leaching as much as 50 times.
Using Plastics Wisely
The FDA has determined that exposure to a certain amount of plastics is an acceptable risk to our health, but many scientists and health professionals are not so sure about this. Cancer, autoimmune disease, obesity, and many idiopathic diseases are on the rise. It seems foolhardy to recognize the proven dangers of plastics yet accept a certain amount as safe.
Limit the food and beverages you consume from plastic containers. Use the containers only for what they were intended for, that is, don’t put a hot beverage in a bottle intended for cold water, or use an industrial container for food storage.
Heat increases the breakdown and degradation of plastic into toxic byproducts. Avoid using heat with plastic, particularly BPA. Minimize drinking coffee and hot beverages from a plastic cup and don’t microwave plastics. Keep plastics out of the dishwasher.
Seek out BPA free plastics and avoid cans that are lined with BPA. Use alternative containers such as glass, porcelain, ceramic or stainless steel. Recycle and don’t reuse is probably a good way to think with plastics when it comes to food and beverage containers. Some experts recommend numbers 2 and 5 as the safest plastics.
Like it or not, plastics are here to stay. And that’s not all bad for they permeate our culture with a dazzling array of products that are beneficial to our lives. But when it comes to your intimate exposure to plastics found in so many food and beverage containing products, I suggest you use them wisely.
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