Dangerous Plastics, Safe Plastics

From toys to water bottles, we're all surrounded by dangerous plastics. Here’s how to choose safe plastics.

| August/September 2009


BPA can leach into food when plastic food containers are heated. A better choice is to warm and store food in ceramic or glass containers.


You’ve been out — working, exercising, shopping. You open the car door and slip into the ovenlike interior. Throat dry, you reach for the water bottle that’s been sitting in the cup holder all day. It’s warm. But at least it’s water, right? Water, yes, albeit water potentially spiked with chemicals that migrated out of the plastic — chemicals that aren’t good for your health.

The latest scientific research has given us a lot of good reasons to think carefully about how we use plastics. The main concern with several types of plastic is that they contain endocrine disruptors — substances that, when taken into our bodies, alter normal hormonal function. Over the past several years, scientists and the media have struggled to find answers to mysteries such as precocious puberty, declining fertility rates in otherwise healthy adults, hyperactivity in kids, the fattening of America, and the persistent scourges of prostate cancer and breast cancer. Although multiple factors play a role in all of these conditions, one recurrent theme is the brew of endocrine disruptors infiltrating our lives.

Effects of Endocrine Disruptors

Endocrine disruptors (which are now widespread in food, water, soil and even the air we breathe) include a long list of chemicals such as dioxins, cadmium, parabens, bisphenol A, phthalates, polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), agricultural chemicals, polybrominated flame retardants, and some of the active ingredients in sunscreens.

Many of these chemicals cause problems because they can mimic the action of natural estrogen. These foreign estrogens (also known as xenoestrogens) can upset normal hormonal balance, stimulate the growth and development of reproductive tumors (breast, uterine, prostate), impair fertility, and disrupt pregnancy. Worse, many can cross the placenta to affect the fetus and get into breast milk. Chemicals such as phthalates have an antiandrogenic effect, meaning they interfere with testosterone and other hormones responsible for male sex characteristics. Exposure to these agents during fetal life and early childhood can derail normal sexual development and heighten the risk for diseases that don’t become apparent until adulthood, such as cancer.

Problems with BPA

One of the most troubling endocrine disruptors is a common ingredient in plastic called bisphenol A (commonly called BPA). According to Laura N. Vandenberg, who holds a doctorate in cell, molecular and developmental biology and works at the Center for Developmental and Regenerative Biology at Tufts University, “BPA is one of the highest volume chemicals produced worldwide, with over 6 billion pounds produced each year.”

Used to produce polycarbonate plastics and epoxy resins, BPA is found in many drinking containers, the lining of most food and beverage cans (including soda cans), bottle caps, plastic cutlery, plastic food storage containers, toys, dental sealants, some dental composites, water pipes, eyeglass lenses, and more. Polycarbonate is often blended with other plastics to create products such as mobile phone cases, car parts, electronic equipment, medical equipment, and household items. Because BPA is in printer ink, newspapers, and carbonless receipts, most recycled paper contains it, including paper towels and paper used to contain food.

4/6/2016 5:59:07 PM

Once I discovered that I am allergic to titanium, and zirconium (on top of every metal known to man), had no other alternative, but to extract all teeth, and the implants. Now I am searching for denture materials that are not harmful. Have always known was allergic to nylon, rayon, and polyester, now test shows acrylic as well. Any suggestions?

2/11/2016 10:21:15 PM

I use plastic tarps to cover my garden in the winter to prevent weeds, leeching nutrients, and keeping it dry so I can work it at anytime rather than wait till June for the rains of the NW to stop and the soil to dry out. Are there any studies that show that plastics used on soil migrate into the food?

5/21/2014 8:47:48 AM

Well mentioned types of plastics which is dangerous for human life. I would also like to mention some like the ones been used in the pools, We should always try to avoid using plastics in pool as they cause harmful effect on kids. Its always advisible to take help of http://beachwoodpools.com/ and get your pool serviced.

Amelia Brailsford
9/18/2009 10:31:59 AM

Your article, which was very informative, mentions that BPA's are in most printer ink. I have been using shredded newspaper and junk mail as part of the "drys" in my compost. Is this increasing my exposure through the vegetables I grow?

Laura Sharp_2
8/13/2009 1:22:58 PM

I just wanted to thank Mother Earth News for publishing this article and making people more aware of the problems with plastics. I also want to thank Linda White for composing such a well written and researched article. I am well aware of the problems of BPA and its affects on my own body. Several years ago, I started eating soy products because I thought they were suppose to be healthy, but experienced the negative affects of being exposed to phyto-estrogens. (Weight gain, hair loss, insomnia, chronic fatigue, fibroid tumors, etc., etc.,) After getting off of soy and regaining my health, I decided to have my mercury amalgoms removed and replaced with composite fillings. Ever since then, I have been experiencing the same symptoms and it took me until recently to figure out what was causing the problem. Now, I have to go through the added expense, etc., and have them removed. Thank you again. I can not priase all of you enough for bringing about public awareness to these problems. And, I can assure you that I will be sharing the information with others! (Topeka - try a water ionizer and drink clean water while avoiding plastic.)

7/31/2009 7:23:33 AM

topeka could not be more wrong. Maybe that person has not read all the excellent references you have given. The most recent science concludes that even small parts per trillion have negative effects. Our own hormones function in the parts per trillion so the argument that these are small insignificant levels does not apply. You did a great job supplying the reader with all the latest research from the leading scientists in the world. Readers need to understand these articles before they spout off. These are scientists presenting peer-reviewed research with no agenda. They are presenting red flags for us. Unfortunately too many people are color blind. Excellent job. For those concerned about tap water, there are excellent whole house filters on the market. The plastic residue is everywhere.

7/20/2009 5:31:02 PM

I'm sorry to see MEarth falling into the trap of trying to justify the hysteria and fake emails people have been circulating regarding plastic water bottles. The editors are, or at least should be, well aware of the levels of prescription drugs, illegal drugs, and over the counter drugs which our water systems fail to filter. Especially worrisome are the levels of antibiotics circulating in our water systems allowing bacteria to become immune to their effects. Looking at these issues, the low levels and amounts of BP, Phthalates and Endocrine disruptor s from the plastic is the least of the worries. Most of the products we eat,drink, and put on our skin use water from these same Municipal Water supplies as well as most bottled water. Why would you worry about small amounts which may or may not actually come from these plastics when we are already ingesting trace amounts of an outrageous presc. Med cocktail????? Editors, if your wanting to scare people, at least be both factual and rational in the dangers you report. This one appears to be sour grapes from the perpetrators of the "Poison" Water bottle fraud which has been debunked repeatedly for the last 12 months. Please, please be more responsible.

Donna Marquart
7/20/2009 1:51:57 PM

I too am glad this information has been published. No new news to me though. As a breast cancer "survivor" I attended a medical conference at least 12 years ago and the research being presented there suggested NOT microwaving in plastic and then some years later, I read a small article about a 4th grader who did a science project where the effects of xeno-estrogens created when people used plastic wrap to microwave their food was clearly shown. So much for "professional scientific research" into the effects of plastics and our "health". btw. I am convinced my BC is as a result of breathing in the DDT being sprayed in our neighborhood back in the 50's to eliminate mosquitos. And exascerbated by the use of plastics. I prefer glass. Better living through chemistry!!

Sarah Kemper
7/20/2009 11:48:43 AM

I am disappointed that this article does not address the plastic mulch often used (and recommended my many Mother Earth News articles) in vegetable gardens. If BPA and other harmful compounds found in plastic can leach into drinking water from landfills, and into food from storage cans, it follows that spreading plastic across a vegetable plot might not be the best idea.

Bob R
7/20/2009 11:31:50 AM

Thank you Dr. Linda White and Mother Earth News staff for providing this excellent article. I had submitted a question about "drinking water safe" garden hoses. The extent to which we are all being exposed to harmful chemicals in plastics (and even paper!) is disturbing. I wonder if a carbon block drinking water filter removes these chemicals? I will be forwarding this article to friends and family.

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