As we become more aware of the devastating environmental impact of plastic pollution in our waterways and oceans, we are also becoming more conscious of the health risks related to our use of plastic products. There are many initiatives of late urging us to stop using plastic, however, due to its low cost and convenience, we can often find ourselves lacking motivation to make changes. In order to spur some willingness to reduce plastic from our everyday use, let’s put aside the environmental impact and instead look inwards, to our own bodies and internal environment, and ask this question: In what ways can plastic harm us?
One of the building blocks of polycarbonate plastics, which make up our baby bottles, water bottles, food containers, office water bottle dispensers and so on, is a compound known as Bisphenol A (known commonly as BPA). When noting the very regular day-to-day uses of plastic, it would be easy to assume that the products were made to be non-toxic and very safe. However, our reading of research resulted in a resounding “no” to that assumption.
BPA is a highly harmful chemical which, we believe, should not be allowed to touch our food let alone store our food or have our food/beverage served up to us in.
How long do you think the plastic water bottles sit in store for before you purchase them? Once you purchase them, how long are they sitting in your car, or your house before you finish them? BPA is not just released with the heat, it still has potentially serious risks at room temperature. A study has found that BPA concentration in water increases with time even at room temperature (Le, M., Chua, & Belcher, 2008). Solution: fill up your own glass or stainless-steel drink bottle and take it with you.
Plastic toxicity release is worse still, when plastic with BPA is heated. This process is called “polymer hydrolysis”, which forms excess BPA in the containers . This can increase the rate of toxic leakage into our food or water by 100 times at just 21°C (70° Fahrenheit). Since water boils at 100°C, it is easy to see that serving hot food in plastic, let alone cooking in plastic, is a big mistake if you are actively seeking to protect your health. With this knowledge, it is evident that there is a risk in purchasing and consuming our takeaway food in plastic – just about all of us have done that! Further, Polymer hydrolysis is why we should never cook our food using plastic in a microwave or even serve it up in plastic.
Recently, I have been doing my best to choose the healthy options. Rather than go for the greasy meat at a local Canberra Turkish restaurant, I chose the cooked green beans instead. They asked if I wanted the beans heated to which I said, “Yes, please.” However, when I saw they were putting the beans in a plastic container and then into the microwave I asked to take my beans away cold!
Have you ever wondered how your otherwise super healthy friend or loved one suddenly contracted a serious health condition? Exposure to plastic might have played a roll. BPA has been linked with a number of adverse health effects. For example, an increased level of BPA in the human body has been correlated with an increased incidence of breast cancer .
Research also says that BPA increases obesity, sterility, incidences of miscarriages, and polycystic ovarian syndrome in women . Other problems, affecting both males and females include abnormal vertebrae development and increased negative effects on the thyroid gland .
BPA not only affects humans, but also animals. Plastic containers thrown in trash may end up being eaten by unsuspecting animals or we may feed our family pet in a plastic bowl. That is especially risky for our pet if we let the bowl sit in the sun. BPA has been found to increase hyperactivity, increase aggressiveness, increase embryo mortality, decrease maternal behaviour amongst many other conditions .
Another component of plastic which is harmful is Di-ethylhexyl phthalate (known as DEHP). It is used in medical devices such as blood transfusion tubes, in children’s toys, and other household items. An increased level of DEHP in human systems has been linked with an increase in reproductive problems, testicular cancer, and a range of hormonal effects . Liver cancer has also been observed in rodents with a high level of DEHP in their systems .
We can see now how harmful the plastics we use in our everyday life really are. Hence, plastics have been given an identification code to help us understand the risks of what type of plastic we are using and for what purpose. BPA is just one of the many harmful components of plastic. There are a few other chemicals, and even processing additives (such as lubricating agents) present in plastic which make plastic harmful even if doesn’t contain BPA (McDonald, 2008).
BPA containing plastics come under the plastic number 7 (which stands for “Other”). However, number 7 plastics now include non-BPA bottles using polymer polyactide (PLA) which is made from corn-based starch . This type of plastic is said to be safer as it doesn’t contain BPA, but there is some controversy about there being other harmful chemicals in it. Unfortunately, using the code system does not always help to choose a safer container since both BLA and PLA are both code 7 plastics. We will try to clarify this issue in our next article as well as check out the latest research into PLA to see how much safer it is.
After all the reading, I have done on this topic, my personal conclusion is that there does not appear to be a totally safe plastic currently available. My response has been to toss all my plastic bottles and food containers into the recycling bin and replace them with glass and stainless steel which cost around $150. The cost of that seems tiny compared to the potential cost of compromised health.
Our goal, through this series of blogs, is to try and simplify this complex, and potentially dangerous, issue in order to help you make more informed decisions that could reduce the risks to you and your family.
Dr. Jason Barritt, B.Sc. (Hons) DC
Reetika Vadgaonkar, B.Sc Physics
 T. P. M. T. H. B. H. C. H. J. E. Biles, “Determination of Bisphenol-A in Reusable Polycarbonate,” Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry, vol. 45, no. 9, pp. 3541-3544, 1997.
 H. H. Le, C. E. M., J. P. Chua and S. M. Belcher, “Bisphenol A is released from polycarbonate drinking bottles and mimics the neurotoxic actions of estrogen in developing cerebellar neurons.,” Toxicology Letters, vol. 176, no. 2, pp. 149-156, 2008.
 R. U. Halden, “Plastics and health risks,” Annual review of public health, vol. 31, pp. 179-194, 2010.
 S. R. A. S. P. S. R. N. Madival, “Assessment of the environmental profile of PLA, PET and PS clamshell containers using LCA methodology,” Journal of Cleaner Production, vol. 17, no. 13, pp. 1183-1194, 2009.
 G. R. A. L. H. S. M. D. H. Y. G. B. B. R. M. W. J. W. M. A. J. D. E. E. A. H. McDonald, “Bioactive contaminants leach from disposable laboratory plasticware,” Science, vol. 322, no. 5903, pp. 917-917, 2008.