You may be careful to buy only BPA-free toys, pacifiers, clear wrap, travel mugs, and other plastics. Doing so is supposed to spare your family from hormone-disrupting chemicals. But these items still aren’t safe (if by safe you mean products that don’t leach other hormone-disrupting chemicals). A new study indicates that nearly every plastic product (including BPA-free) is made up of chemicals that stimulate estrogenic activity (EA) in human cells.
Estrogen made by our bodies in the right quantities at the right time is a good thing. But chemicals with EA have been linked to a whole slew of frightening problems like increased rates of reproductive cancers, premature puberty in girls, lowered sperm counts, obesity, and more.
To perform the study, University of Texas researchers purchased 455 widely available plastic products. Although most were labeled “BPA-free” it wasn’t possible to determine exactly what chemicals they contained. Apparently this is proprietary information closely guarded by industry. To determine if the products had estrogenic effects, researchers exposed extracted versions to solvents meant to mimic food and beverage items these plastics were likely to contain. Then, they exposed these extracts to a type of human breast cancer cell that’s highly receptive to estrogen. Cells that multiplied in the presence of plastic extracts indicated that those particular chemicals were estrogenic.
The results? Nearly every plastic product they tested leached EA chemicals. Some BPA-free products actually released more EA than other plastics. That included eco-friendly plastics made from plant products, which apparently released EA due to the additives used.
In addition, the researchers checked the effect of sunlight, microwave use, and dishwasher use on the products being studied. They determined plastics leach more EA after these ordinary stressors.
Before you restrict your kids to toys made of cloth, wood, and metal you’ll probably want to decide for yourself whether plastics are truly evil or a risk worth taking. Check out these and other resources, and let us know what you think.
Bag It: Is Your Life Too Plastic?
Eliminating Plastic From Our Lives
Nine Ways To Reduce Plastic Use
Attainable Sustainable: Reviving the Lost Art of Self-Sufficiency
12 thoughts on “Plastic Just Got More Sinister”
Ok, so reusable water bottles are good because they don’t trash the earth. AND reusable water bottles are bad because they are going to poison me.
I stopped getting pre-packaged meals because they generate useless waste. I can use fresh, low-package ingredients and make my own, taking leftovers for lunch in my tupperware. BUT that tupperware is going to stimulate my estrogen (which I have enough of already as evidenced by this comment) and make me sick. Fantastic.
So I can either be green and die of chemical overexposure. Or I can have the largest carbon foot print ever. Or I can do neither and starve. Fantastic.
I give up.
I’m gonna go chew on some styrofoam.
PS -Actually an awesome post with some really interesting bits of science, I’m just in a sarcastic mood.
I know moms who tote lunch to the park in glass containers, which would make me nervous for other reasons. There’s always paper bags and waxed paper wrapping, and even washable cloth lunch bags. Or the kind of metal water bottles containers I used to carry backpacking. Anything is capable of leaching chemicals, though.
For what it’s worth, a professor of organic chemistry who was giving our homeschool group a tour of a museum exhibit he curated featuring important molecules such as plastic DID say that he would not drink out of or heat food in plastic containers…
Yeah, I’m exasperated enough to chew on Styrofoam too. At least it has a nice squishy texture.
Just to clarify: the fact that the researchers found certain extractions from plastics affected cell growth does not directly translate to all plastics are evil and are killing us. A lot of the chemicals we ingest (especially large molecules which tend to leach out of plastics) pass right through our bodies.
Some of their protocols in the paper are a little strange. To simulate a dishwasher, they heat the plastic in an autoclave with water vapor to a temperature much hotter than most dishwashers get. Plastics are designed to work within certain temperature ranges and going over those ranges may cause degradation or leaching that wouldn’t occur from normal use. Also, soaking a piece of plastic in pure ethanol or a saline solution designed to keep cells alive is not what I’d consider normal use.
I’m not saying that the findings are irrelevant, but I think their conclusions are a little strong compared to their actual findings.
That’s interesting to know about the methodology, but I think the fact still remains, in general we’ve replaced one evil with another. In our extreme and rather quick effort to go green, we’ve glued ourselves to plastic. I’m guilty of it in every way. My solution for less waste was neither innovative nor did it require any effort. I just broke out the old stash of tupperware and quit overdoing it on the ziploc bags and one use water bottles. Whether or not this particular project is as valid as it could be or as sound a research method as one might hope, it still brings to light some rather annoying (at least for me) bits of info about the stability and safety of plastics. Do I want to give up my plastic? No. And I probably won’t. But all in all, perhaps we could find better ways to use what petroleum we do have access to, instead of pouring most of it into molds to form stuff, most of it useless (be honest…it is too useless) and some potentially damaging to our health (although extent of which is yet undetermined). I’m annoyed, but I get it. It still feels like a catch 22, but I get it.
We aren’t plastic-free here by any means, but a few years ago I started using heavy glass storage dishes of all sizes (some vintage ones from resale shops and some new). I store homemade soap powders and sewing notions in my old Tupperware. And when buying toys I aim for creative, open-ended Waldorf-y items.
Your point is very well taken Robin. Even the initial protocols to extract plastic using solvents seemed odd. It may be the same procedure used to test for BPA in the first place. If these are preliminary studies, it would make sense to test these products in situations closer to daily use.
I have read studies showing there are markers of plastic-derived endocrine disruptors in some species of amphibians, the same ones manifesting a range of dysmorphic features.
Alright, here’s my plastic fear. Cross-linked polyethylene (sp?) piping, or PEX. I just had a foreclosed, copper-stolen house renovated and moved in with my wife and three little ‘uns … and the plumber did ALL of the pipes in PEX rather than copper. Apparently it would have cost WAY more to do it the old fashioned way. The Environmental Working Group offhandedly recommended PEX as a good alternative to PVC, but you can find allegations on the ‘net that it degrades under sunlight or heat, and releases chemicals. Got any info???
We looked into replacing our copper and stopped due to the plastic pipe conundrum. Evidence seems pretty sketchy. The only thing I can say is run your drinking/cooking water a few minutes before the first use in the morning. (Save it to water plants or flush your toilet or something.) That way you’re rinsing through the water that’s been sitting all night and minimizing your exposure.
Further to Robin’s point, cell experiments such as this can only hope to be rough indicators that, maybe, further research should be done and, maybe, a clinical double blind trial on a large sample group over the course of many years might be warranted – all of which would need to be done before you can draw any meaningful conclusions at all.
Can I recommend ‘Bad Science’ by Ben Goldacre? It really should be required reading in our schools. I’m always banging on about this book but unless one reads it (or happens to be an ethical and qualified research scientist) the odds are that one has been hoodwinked by the media (or an untrained or unethical research scientist) into believing something that simply isn’t so.
His website is worth a look as well, it contains most of his Guardian Newspaper column from which the book is drawn.
Thanks Matt. Here’s the Bad Science site:
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