Plastics, and the chemicals that they are composed of, have the potential to negatively affect our health in certain applications. Luckily, we can all make safe choices when it comes to the products we purchase and use.
The following is a partial list of some of the most common chemicals lurking in products made from or containing plastics and should aid in your decision making process.
What is BPA?
BPA is an abbreviation for Bisphenol-A. BPA is an "ingredient" used in the chemical compound that lines the inside of food containers such as canned goods and cartons for liquids like milk and juice. It also is the major building block in Polycarbonate plastic. Plastics with the number 7 on the bottom of the container. In 2004, the estimated production of bisphenol A in the United States was approximately 2.3 billion pounds, most of which was used in polycarbonate plastics and epoxy resins.
What are the possible health effects?
While manufacturers argue that the everyday exposure to BPA is too small to cause any real health concerns, clinical studies are piling up linking BPA to breast cancer, testicular cancer, diabetes, hyperactivity, obesity, low sperm counts, miscarriage and a host of other reproductive failures in laboratory animals. It is also linked with immune system alterations, early puberty, developmental problems, insulin resistance, increased risk of type II diabetes, and hypertension. In short, most research suggests that BPA acts as an "environmental estrogen" and once it's ingested it can disrupt proper hormone functioning, alter genes and interferes with normal physical and behavioral development. For example, a recent clinical study of rat pups exposed to BPA, through injection or food, showed signs of accelerated puberty as well as changes in mammary and prostate tissue, suggesting potential cancer risk. Additionally, in April 2008, the United States Department of Health and Human Services’ National Toxicology Program issued a draft report citing "some concern for neural and behavioral effects in fetuses, infants, and children at current human exposures." Later that same month the government of Canada went further with the issue of BPA. After seven years of study, it listed BPA as a toxic substance under its environmental protection act. Because of that listing, it has introduced regulations that will ban selling, advertising, manufacturing or importing baby bottles made with BPA-related plastics. Canada will also work with the industry to minimize or eliminate BPA-based linings in cans used for infant formula.
How do I minimize my exposure to BPA?
Make safe choices if you must use plastic:
Choose plastics that use polyethylene (#1, #2, and #4) and polypropylene (#5), which require the use of less toxic additives. They also are non-chlorinated.
Avoid choosing products that use polyvinyl chloride (#3), polystyrene (#6), and polycarbonate (#7) which often are found in clear, hard plastics used for water, baby bottles or sippy cups.
For more information on BPA and helpful tips for moms, please visit Healthy Child Healthy World's website at http://www.healthychild.org/.
To read the 2008 United States Department of Health and Human Services’ National Toxicology Program's draft report on BPA in full please visit http://cerhr.niehs.nih.gov/chemicals/bisphenol/BPADraftBriefVF_04_14_08.pdf
What are phthalates?
Phthalates, the most common being Bis(2-ethylhexyl)phthalate (abbreviated as DEHP) are industrial chemicals used in vinyl and PVC plastics (to give it its flexibility), solvents, and synthetic fragrances. Phthalates have been around since the 1930's, seventy years later, they can be found justabout everywhere. When the CDC (Center for Disease Control and Prevention) tested 289 people in 2000, they found phthalates in all of the subjects' blood at surprisingly high levels. Phthalates are relatively persistent in the environment and have been found in drinking water, soil, household dust, wildlife, fatty foods and in the blood and breast milk of humans and animals. Although phthalates are considered hazardous waste and regulated as air and water pollutants, they are unregulated in food, cosmetics, and consumer and medical products. In October, 2007, Arnold Schwarzenegger signed a bill banning the manufacture, sale and distribution of toys and child care products (intended to be used by children under the age of three) containing phthalates in the state of California. Unfortunately other states are slow to follow suit.
What are the possible health effects?
Phthalates are endocrine (the system of small organs that are involved in the release of hormones) disruptors thought to mimic the female hormone estrogen. Researchers have long known that high levels of phthalates have gender-bending effects on animals, specifically males, making them more feminine and leading to poor sperm quality and infertility. New studies suggest that even at normal levels, phthalates, which are ubiquitous, can disrupt the development of male babies' reproductive organs. Additionally, in a September 2000 study, Puerto Rican researchers reported that phthalates had been detected in baby girls, aged 6 months to eight years, with premature breast development. The average levels of DEHP were six times greater in the early developers than in babies who had not experienced premature breast development. This same study showed phthalates adversely affected the male reproductive system in animals, inducing hypospadias, cryptorchidism, reduced testosterone production and decreased sperm counts. More recently Phthalates has been classified by the CDC as a probable human carcinogen and clinical studies show it causes chronic health problems, including liver and kidney abnormalities, asthma and skin and upper respiratory allergies.
How do I minimize my exposure to phthalates?
For more information on phthalates please visit The Center for Disease Control and Prevention's website at http://www.cdc.gov/ or http://www.cdc.gov/exposurereport/pdf/results_06.pdf.
To read the study conducted by Norway's National Institute of Public Health in full please visit http://www.pubmedcentral.nih.gov/articlerender.fcgi?artid=1508530.
You can also visit Environmental Working Group's Skin Deep Searchable Product Guide by visiting http://www.cosmeticdatabase.com/splash.php?URI=%2Findex.php. This site is the largest integrated data resource of its kind, pairing the ingredients in more than 25,000 commercial products against 50 definitive toxicity and regulatory database.
What is PVC?
Polyvinyl Chloride, or PVC is the dominant member of a family of plastics better known as "vinyl". Other common polyvinyls in this family are PVAC, used in latex paints and adhesives and PVF, used as an outdoor weather-resistant coating. However, PVC is the largest volume member of this family by far. It is estimated that six billion pounds of PVC are created annually in the United States.
What are the possible health effects?
PVC is one of the most hazardous consumer products ever created. PVC has the dubious distinction of packing a one-two punch to our society, posing a great threat to our bodies and our environment throughout its entire life cycle.
The manufacture of raw PVC is itself a highly polluting process. More environmental problems are then created by the toxic chemicals that are added to PVC to give it different qualities such as flexibility. PVC, on its own, is unstable and must always be used with additives called stabilizers based on heavy metals: lead, cadmium, tin, barium and zinc. In many cases, the final PVC product will contain relatively little raw PVC. Additive chemicals acting as stabilizers, plasticizers, pigments, optical brighteners, flame retardants and lubricants can make up over 50% of the final product. Under certain conditions lead may be present on the surface of PVC products, which can be transferred by hand to mouth or distributed to surfaces as dust.
Independent labs found that it is particularity common for vinyl products to contain lead, a neurotoxin, and that the levels are hazardous to health. In these studies, 18% of the products tested violated limits recommended by the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) for lead in vinyl miniblinds and flooring. Cadmium, a heavy metal that is used as a stabilizer in PVC and in coatings and pigments in plastic and paint is a known carcinogen associated with lung and prostate cancer. Exposure to cadmium is also associated with developmental effects, bone loss, and increased blood pressure. It is not regulated in kids' products by CPSC.
In 1995,the Arizona Department of Health Services, responding to the lead poisoning of children in situations where no obvious source existed, found the source to be rigid Vinyl miniblinds in the children's rooms. There were very large amounts of lead dust on the PVC blinds, as well as lead dust on the windowsills below. Two of the children had been chewing on the blinds themselves. At first, the CPSC declined to identify the blinds as a hazard, but in June 1996 they agreed to do so. Subsequently, sampling in North Carolina found miniblinds to be a lead hazard, with surface lead dust exceeding federal standards by as much as 100-fold. No formal recall was ever issued, despite vigorous urgings by the authorities of both states. The Window Covering Safety Council, throughout all this, put out press releases reassuring consumers that the lead found in the blinds did not constitute a hazard to children.
In 1997, motivated by this finding, Greenpeace, along with two independent laboratories, sampled 131 toys and children's products for lead and cadmium. In short, they found that about 20 percent of the toys tested contained Lead, Cadmium, or both. In many of the toys, the levels were high enough to exceed federal guidelines. They repeated this process in several major U.S. urban areas, with similar results.
Additionally, PVC cannot be effectively recycled due to the many different toxic additives (including chlorine, at about a 57% volume, which when burned releases dioxins, a group of the most potent synthetic chemicals ever tested) used to soften or stabilize PVC, which can contaminate the recycling batch. Most consumers do not know that a 3 in the recycle symbol indicates that the plastic is made of PVC, and therefore recycle those products, inadvertently rendering thousands of potentially recycled containers useless. In fact just one PVC bottle can contaminate a recycling load of 100,000 PET bottles.
Now keep in mind, the intent of this guide is to inform you, not scare you. Pure PVC itself is not harmful, or else I imagine our city officials would not use it to make residential water pipes. However, as discussed in the text above, some types of additives are questionable in regards to safety. A good rule of thumb is the more flexible the plastic the higher risk of toxins emissions.
How do I minimize my exposure to PVC?
For more information on toxic life cycle of PVC visit the website My House Is your House at http://www.myhouseisyourhouse.org.
For more information on PVC and other hazardous plastics read the Institute for Agriculture and Trade's "Smart Plastic Guide" by visiting http://www.healthobservatory.org/library.cfm?refID=77083.
HealthyToys.org provides specific guidelines for how to petition federal and state government agencies and toy manufacturers to urge them to phase out PVC and toxic chemicals from toys immediately.