Plastics and Your Health
We know a great deal about the damaging effect of plastics on our planet and wildlife. But did you know plastics can adversely affect your health, too?
In this article we’ll have a closer look on the health effects of plastic and how you can reduce your exposure.
The Problem with Plastics
Plastic was invented back in 1907 but first became popular in the 1960s. Over 300 million tons of plastic are produced globally per year. We all know we should be reducing our use or at the very least recycling our plastic.
The problem as far as our health is concerned is substances contained in plastic don’t necessarily remain in the plastic and can migrate into food and liquids.
There are many different types of plastic in existence which contain hundreds of chemicals. We don’t yet know how they all affect our health, but we’ll have a look at two classes of substances which are causing concern.
Often called BPA, this substance is used to make transparent plastics and resins. It’s found in plastic food containers and the lining of food cans. It’s also present in feminine hygiene products and dental sealants.
BPA can leach out into food and liquid. Heating seems to magnify this effect, and it’s especially likely to migrate into fatty, acidic or salty foods.
Once it enters the body BPA mimics the female hormone oestrogen. It latches onto the body’s oestrogen receptors and tricks the body into thinking it’s oestrogen. So BPA can increase oestrogen levels in both males and females as well as disrupting the natural balance between our hormones. This is because if oestrogen levels climb too high they drive down levels of progesterone. BPA can also bind to testosterone and thyroid hormone receptors.
For this reason BPA is known as an endocrine disruptor. It’s part of a range of chemicals called xenoestrogens.
This is a family of chemicals which are used to soften plastics such as food packaging and cling film. Flexible plastics are found all around the home, for example in glues and vinyl flooring, where they are emitted into the dust and the air we breathe.
They’re also found in detergents and cosmetics as well as personal care products like perfume, shampoo and shower gel and sanitary products.
Phthalates are also able to mimic hormones.
Health Effects of Plastics
Because these plastic particles are endocrine disruptors, they can lead to fertility problems, hormone dependent cancers, and issues related to oestrogen dominance such as PMS, heavy and painful periods, fibroids and endometriosis. They have also been linked with cardiovascular disease.
Research has discovered phthalates can affect our sensitivity to the hormones which control our blood sugar levels and tend to increase the amount of fat which is deposited in our bodies. They are linked with insulin resistance which in turn leads to Type 2 diabetes.
We know these chemicals can pass from the bloodstream into the brain, and they’re implicated in the development of autism.
These substances are tested for safety in isolation or over a short time period, so we simply don’t know the long–term effects of combinations of these chemicals on our health. It makes sense, then, to reduce our exposure where we can.
How to Avoid Plastic
- Use glass or metal water bottles. One study found the amount of BPA in urine increased by two thirds after volunteers switched to drinking water from bottles containing BPA for just one week. BPA-free water bottles are available, however science is discovering the substances used by plastic manufacturers to replace BPA may also leach into food and liquid. Although we don’t understand yet exactly the health effects of these chemicals, we know they are also able to act as oestrogen mimickers. If a plastic contains anything with the letters BP in it, such as BPS and BPF, it will contain bisphenol and is likely to have similar effects to BPA.
- Use glass containers to store food and never heat food in plastic containers in the microwave. Avoid cling film. Don’t wash plastic containers in the dishwasher and recycle any plastics which look old or scratched. All these factors can increase the likelihood of particles leaching into food and liquid.
- Switch to fresh, unpackaged food wherever possible rather than food which has been stored in plastic and cans. Research discovered levels of endocrine disruptors in the body fell by as much as 90% after only three days of eating fresh rather than packaged food.
- Use chemical–free personal care products. Phthalates can be absorbed into the body through the skin.
- Switch to chemical–free cleaners for use around the home.