Saturday, April 2, 2011

BPA, pthalates, and the "safer" plastics conundrum

The latest science shows that plastics are really, really bad news. For years, the conventional wisdom has been that while some bad plastics, such as polycarbonate (PC #7) release toxic chemicals, notably hormone-disrupting Bisphenol-A (BPA), other plastics are safer. Unfortunately, they may not be. Hormone-disrupting, estrogenically active (EA) chemicals were found to leach from all kinds of plastics, including those labeled BPA-free, in a study published by Environmental Health Perspectives (EHP) in March. “In some cases, BPA-free products released chemicals having more EA than BPA-containing products,” wrote researchers, who tested 450 baby bottles, water bottles, plastic food containers and wraps bought from retailers including Wal-mart and Whole Foods. Seventy percent of the items released EA into solutions at room temperature, and 95% leached EA after stress tests simulating normaluse in dishwashers and microwaves.

Next, a small but significant study released in EHP online, found that BPA levels in urine samples taken from five SF Bay Area families–10 adults and 10 children–dropped by 66 percent over just three days when they stopped eating packaged food, including food from plastic packages and cans. Participants’ levels of DEHP phthalate, another hormone-disrupting chemical commonly found in flexible PVC plastic, dropped by 53-56 percent.

“All plastic should be labeled as hazardous waste," Captain Charles Moore,who discovered what is popularly known as the “Great Pacific Garbage Patch," told me recently in Honolulu, where he had come with many others to present research at a week-long UNEP/NOAA Marine Debris Conference. Moore's research voyages to the Great Pacific Gyres off Hawaii and Japan, and the waters between, show that the ocean is fast turning into a plastic plasma. Discarded plastic bottles, containers, toys, and fishing line are broken up into microscopic fragments, about plankton size. His Algalita Foundation's latest findings: Thirty-five percent of plankton-eating lantern fish, the bottom of the marine food chain, had plastic in their bellies.

This toxic plastic plasma will rise in the food chain and find its way into our bellies if we don’t stop contributing to it soon. “Everything eventually makes its way into the ocean,” Captain Moore says.

What to Do?

First, we’ve got to stop buying disposable items made of plastic, Moore says.

Second, we must recycle, rather than toss our old plastics in the trash. If your municipality only accepts bottles labeled #1 and #2 in curbside bins, type in “plastic” at to find a recycling/redemption drop-off center nearest you that takes #3, #6 and #7 plastics.

That said,if you sometimes need to store or carry foods in lightweight plastics, choose #1, #2, #4 and #5 and keep them away from high heat and abrasion. No microwaving or cleaning in dishwasher! See my lists of food and drink containers that are least toxic, according to the research that's been done so far.

We can reduce our body burden of toxic plastic chemicals, like the Bay Area families did, by eating mostly fresh, not processed foods, and avoiding plastic. Check out the SF Chronicle’s interviews with the researchers

Take Action

Finally, we can speak up and tell our political and community leaders to ban single-use plastics. Let's not let the plastics industry chill our speech! For example: Over the objections of researchers who were reporting their studies of plastics pollution and the ocean,the “P” word--“plastic"--was left out of all official publications and pronouncements, Dianna Cohen of Plastics Pollution Coalition told me. "Plastic was the elephant in the room," Cohen said. Instead, the euphemism “marine debris” was used throughout, even though, as Moore told me, “Almost all so-called ‘marine debris’ is plastic." Conference sponsors included Coca Cola and the American Chemistry Council (ACC), which has been pouring money into efforts to block bans on disposable plastic grocery bags nationwide.
Support ongoing research by Moore’s Algalita Foundation.

Help stop the use of single-use grocery bags in your community. Take the Plastics Pledge and learn more about Surfrider Foundation’s Rise Above Plastics campaign.

I hope to hear from you! My book, Do One Green Thing: Saving the Earth Through Simple, Everyday Choices, grew out of questions and suggestions from valued readers like you. For more green, healthy living news and tips, please sign up for our free monthy e-newsletter at and ask me questions there or in the comment section of this blog. I'll answer!

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