Plastic not so Fantastic

Baby bottles, storage containers, plastic wrap and refillable drink bottles are just some of the household plastic items found in every Australian household. There is growing debate about the safety of chemicals found in these household plastic items, and whether these chemicals can migrate into food.

Environmental toxicologist Associate Professor Peter Dingle of Perth's Murdoch University says "The biggest concern is that these chemicals act as foreign oestrogens (xenoestrogens), which is of particular concern in pregnant women and infants." These foreign oestrogens (female sex hormones) can disrupt the body's natural hormone system and create hormone imbalances, and cause a range of health problems.

In household plastics there are two types of chemicals that mimic oestrogen:

  • Bisphenol A (BPA), found in hard plastic polycarbonate containers and bottles (storage containers, drink bottles, baby bottles), and cans with epoxy resin seals (used for acidic foods like tomatoes).
  • Plasticisers such as phthalates that are used to make PVC plastic softer (soft containers, plastic wrap) and in seals for screw-cap jars.

A US population-based study is one of many that has found that BPA and plasticisers, are toxic to the body in large doses and can increase your risk of breast and prostate cancer, heart disease, diabetes, reproductive disorders and developmental problems.

There is little doubt these chemicals are a health risk, but what is in doubt is the amount of exposure to these chemicals that can cause health problems. Professor Dingle says that because toxicology of this nature is a new science, too little is known at this point.

However community concerns about the cumulative effects of using plastics have led to

the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC) ordering retailers to stop selling certain plastic products for children under three. Toys, dummies and feeding equipment contain more than 1 per cent of the plasticiser diethylhexyl phthalate (DEHP).

This ban was imposed after research by the National Industrial Chemicals Notification and Assessment Scheme, found that chewing or sucking objects containing DEHP for more than 40 minutes a day could increase a young child's risk of reproductive toxicity (that is this exposure could lead to problems with their hormones and reproductive system).

But there are no moves to prohibit other products containing plasticisers or BPA, or to increase labeling requirements on plastic products in Australia. ACCC deputy chair Peter Kell says that low levels of exposure of BPA are safe for the general population, including babies drinking from plastic bottles. Regulatory bodies around the world are working to find safe levels of exposure to plastics for food use and storage. There are many scientists around the world who would say avoid BPA, pthalate and DHEP containing plastics as much as possible – especially for babies and children.

What can we do about this now? Frankly, if there is any doubt about chemical contamination from plastic, then find another way of storing it. Good food storage habits are also important so this creates the problem of keeping food fresh. We may not be able to replace plastic baby bottles with glass ones, but we can find safer plastic baby bottles, in Eco shops and on the Internet.

Here are some ways to reduce plastic exposure:

  • Use waxed paper for lunch wrap before placing in a plastic wrap.
  • Invest in safe, long lasting drink bottles for your kids: stainless steel or BBA and pthalate – free plastic. Label the bottles well!
  • Microwave food in ceramic containers and avoid using plastic wraps
  • Use BPA-free plastic, glass, ceramic and stainless steel feeding or storage equipment
  • Don’t put warm food or drinks into plastic containers
  • Avoid putting fatty foods (meat, cheese, salad dressing) into plastic containers  (plasticisers migrate better in fatty foods)
  • Avoid fresh meat, fruit or vegetables that have been wrapped in plastic
  • Avoid cheap, imported plastic storage items or any plastic container with a strong chemical or plastic smell, like plastic shower curtains
  • Use safe baby bottles and dummies.

 

Queensland toxicologist Emeritus Professor Michael Moore. recommends changing how you store your food and drinks until a definitive answer on the safety of plastics is found.

What you can implement in your life over a short period to have a little impact over a long time.

If you would like to read more about the topic of plastics leaching into food, the entertaining book ‘Slow Death By Rubber Duck’ by Rick Smith and Bruce Lowrie, published by the University of Queensland Press 2009 is well worth the read.


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