Plastics are everywhere, and many of our foods and beverages are packaged in plastics. We store and reheat leftovers in plastics. Even the Teflon that coats our nonstick cookware is a type of plastic known as a polymer.
Scientists at Tufts University say that trace amounts of plastics are transferred, or migrate, into our food and drinks. Some experts believe the amounts we ingest are harmless. Others say that based on animal studies and the amounts of the chemicals found in our bodies, it doesn’t look good.
The Washington-based advocacy organization Environmental Working Group says that most of the chemicals in the plastics are considered safe. That’s not because they have been proven safe, but because they have not been proven unsafe.
Sonya Lunder, an Environmental Working Group senior analyst said, “There is very little study of plastics’ long-term health effects. Just because a chemical is being used doesn’t mean that a government agency has really considered its risk to our health.
“In the 1960s people might say, ‘Sure, you have a little plastics in the diet.’ Over the last 10 to 15 years, we have been able to measure that and also taken a look at how that might be associated with common diseases,” Lunder said.
The cumulative effects of the chemicals we absorb from the sofa we sit on, to those in the food we eat and in the air we breathe, are not known.
But in the past few years there have been investigations into the possible adverse health effects of plastics known as bisphenol A, or BPA, and a class of chemicals called phthalates.
In January the U.S. Food and Drug Administration said that recent studies provide some concern about the potential effects of BPA on the brain, behavior and prostate glands of fetuses, infants and children.
The primary source of exposure to BPA for most people is through their diet, according to the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences.
Most people have detectable levels of BPA in their bodies. Tests conducted by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found detectable levels of BPA in 93 percent of 2,517 urine samples from people 6 years and older.
Phthalates too, are considered a hormone disrupter, meaning they interfere with the way hormones work. Studies have found phthalates almost everywhere, even in indoor dust we breathe.
Teflon also has come under fire. DuPont and other manufacturers of PFOA, a chemical given off during the manufacturing of Teflon, have signed an agreement with the EPA to stop making PFOA by 2015. DuPont said it is taking the action because studies have shown very low levels of PFOA in the environment and in the blood of the general population.
The EPA has said it considers PFOA a “likely carcinogen” but said that no PFOA remains in the finished nonstick surface.
A recent study by a United Kingdom research team from the University of Plymouth and the University of Exeter found a link between the concentration of chemicals in the Teflon family and a twofold risk of developing thyroid disease.
The CDC analyzed data from Americans, Lunder said.”Ninety-eight percent of people have measurable levels of the Teflon family of chemicals in their bodies,” Lunder said.
The same chemical used in nonstick cookware also is used in the linings of microwave popcorn and some fast-food containers.
The chemical industry, scientists and consumer advocates continue to argue and wait for additional studies about how plastics affect our health.
What you can do to minimize your exposure to plastics
• Don’t microwave food in plastic containers. Put the food on a plate and cover it with a paper towel, not plastic wrap.
• To avoid BPA, don’t use plastic containers with a 7 or the letters PC on the bottom.
• To reduce exposure to phthalates, avoid polyvinyl chloride. It’s noted with a 3 or PVC.
• Don’t wash plastic containers in the dishwasher.
• Reduce your use of canned foods. Cans are lined with a resin epoxy that contains BPA. Eat fresh or frozen foods.
• When possible, opt for glass, porcelain or stainless steel containers, especially for hot foods or liquids.
• Breast-feed your baby, or use powdered formula instead of cans.
• Use baby bottles that are BPA free and look for toys that are labeled BPA-free.
• Don’t heat nonstick cookware at temperatures above 460 degrees. That can occur in about 90 seconds.
• Run an exhaust fan over the stove while using nonstick cookware.
• To avoid Teflon, use cast iron or stainless steel cookware.
• Store food in glass containers.
• Discard scratched or worn plastic containers.
• Discard nonstick cookware that is scratched or flaking.
Sources: Environmental Working Group, National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences