The Harmful Effects of Plastics

Plastics have been a wonderful addition to our society in some ways, by making products cheaper, lighter, and more plentiful. Unfortunately, there are serious downsides to having plastic around us all the time, chewed by our babies, covering our food, and tossed indiscriminately on the ground in the outdoors.

I once sat on a park bench at the La Brea Tar Pits Museum in Los Angeles, thinking about all the sabor-toothed tigers, dire wolves, and mastodon skeletons that I had just seen inside, unearthed from the tar pits where they had been well preserved for hundreds of thousands of years. Oozing black tar still bubbled up next to my bench in a tiny “vent” in the grass. A little boy dropped a plastic McDonald’s cup into the oozing tar vent to watch it slowly sink into oblivion.  This is the excavation we offer to future generations—mountains of plastic.

Adverse Health Effects of Plastics

Unfortunately, plastics get us coming and going.  Workers in factories that manufacturer plastic products are exposed to extremely dangerous chemicals (polyvinyl chloride, BHT, Chimassorb 81, Irganox PS 800, Irganix 1076, and Irganox 1010), screwing up their health on a daily basis.  Many, if not all, plastics are made from petroleum, an extremely powerful artificial estrogen.  More on this important aspect later…

No, I’m not a scientist (rather, I’m an amateur [for the love of] scientist), but I don’t have to be told twice by someone who is a scientist that these chemicals are not good for us, so these dangers are real.  Thankfully, there are researchers studying this and warning us so we can take heed.  (Read it for yourself at the Plymouth University website).  This is my paraphrase of this important work, published by the Royal Society of England.

Not only do plastics create safety problems for workers during production, but plastics get their desirable performance properties from the many chemical additives that go into them. These additives also screw us our natural environmental and our own health.  These effects include

  • Toxic exposure to lead, cadmium, and mercury
  • Cancer-causing chemicals, like polyvinyl chloride and diethylhexyl phthalate (DEHP)
  • Hormone (endocrine) disruption, which can result in birth defects, suppressing our immune system, cancers, and developmental problems in children.

Oh, is that all?!  If that last item isn’t enough to dampen your enthusiasm for using plastics everywhere in the kitchen, what is?

The endocrine disruption has to do with the fact that many plastics are made with petroleum products, as stated above, a powerful artificial estrogen.  Think of it like this:  human estrogen is the natural hormone found in our bodies.  It plays a role in regularing reproduction and many other things, too. Plant estrogens, as found in soy products, etc., are just a touch stronger, but generally are safe for us to ingest.  Artificial estrogens are much stronger.  When we are exposed to them or ingest them, our endocrine systems (that use hormones to control and regulate so many body functions that’ it’s not funny) go haywire.  They’re so strong that they change the way things work inside our bodies.

Check out what the scientists say and decide for yourself if you’re willing to ignore this warning:

See the Adverse Health Effects Grid for a list of commonly used plastics and their known health effects.

How Chemicals from Plastic get into our Food

We also get exposed to these chemicals when we purchase food that is packaged in plastic because some of the chemicals make their way into the foods they wrap.  Examples of plastics contaminating food have been reported with most plastic types, including Styrene from polystyrene, plasticizers from PVC, antioxidants from polyethylene, and Acetaldehyde from PET.

You don’t have to sit and munch on a plastic bottle to get the effects (though my toddler once took to chewing on the plastic lids briefly).

Some of the contamination has to do with how we use the packaging.  We used to heat milk in baby bottles in the microwave (but hopefully not any more), we freeze plastic water bottles for extra-cold water, and we leave them in our hot cars all day, while the chemical contamination leaches into the water.  Then we drink the water!

In studies cited in Food Additives and Contaminants, LDPE, HDPE, and polypropylene bottles released measurable levels of BHT, Chimassorb 81, Irganox PS 800, Irganix 1076, and Irganox 1010 into their contents of vegetable oil and ethanol. Evidence was also found that acetaldehyde migrated out of PET and into water.

We haven’t even talked about BPA, which is a nasty chemical on cash register receipts and leaching from plastic into water bottles.  Look that one up yourself—Bisphenol A.  Let’s cut to the chase!

Let’s Stop Buying Plastic Bottles for a Starter

So, let’s stop buying plastic bottles RIGHT NOW.  Water bottles, soda bottles, juice bottles, etc.

You might argue that stainless steel bottles are expensive.  But Walgreens drugstores sells these substitutes for $3.99 or $4.99, depending on the community.  Is that worth a healthier old age?

You might also argue that water is not a good enough substitute.  I know a desert or a beach where you can stick your head in the sand and ignore all the warnings that are all around us. It may come down to the fact that water or tea or some other simple substance are the only things that are safe to drink.  Check out the value of sodas for your child here.

Recommendations

Whenever we can, we need to find other products to use instead of plastic products .  Here are some specific suggestions from the Ecology Center mentioned above:

  1. Buy food in glass or metal containers; avoid polycarbonate drinking bottles with Bisphenol A
  2. Avoid heating food in plastic containers, or storing fatty foods in plastic containers or plastic wrap.
  3. Do not give young children plastic teethers or toys
  4. Use natural fiber clothing, bedding and furniture
  5. Avoid all PVC and Styrene products

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