Not So Fantastic
From the bottles our drinks come in and the containers we use to store food, to our cosmetics packaging, hairdryers, and baby bottles and dummies, we are constantly exposed to different types of plastic.
Words ROSEMARY FERGUSON
There’s no doubt that the widespread use of plastic has had its benefits in terms of affordability and convenience, but it also has its drawbacks. As more research is being carried out into the way plastic is produced, used and discarded, these are becoming a growing concern.
Plastic is one of the biggest sources of pollution to the environment, and evidence is increasingly showing that potentially toxic chemicals in plastics are also having an adverse effect on human health. Although plastic can be one of the most eco materials we have, reusable and durable, this durability is also the very thing that makes it so damaging to the environment. It decomposes extremely slowly, meaning that when it is discarded it hangs around for a very long time. Only a very small percentage gets recycled and the rest ends up as landfill, where it will pollute the earth for centuries, or in the sea where it has a devastating effect on marine life. The majority of rubbish that ends up in the ocean accumulates in five large gyres – circular currents with stable centres in which plastic particles drawn in by the circular motion become trapped. Living creatures can get caught in larger pieces of plastic (such as six-pack can holders, or fishing nets) while smaller bits can be mistaken for food and eaten — when this happens the chemicals contained in the plastics, as well as the persistent organic pollutants (POPs) that plastics attract once they’re in the ocean, move up the food chain, until they hit the top – which is us.
Never drink water that has been left in a hot car in a plastic bottle – findings indicate that toxins leach out much faster when plastic is heated
But the food chain is not the only way these lovely chemicals can enter our bodies. They can leach out of the plastics, directly into our food and drink. One of the main chemical offenders is Bisphenol A (BPA) which can be found in water bottles and food containers, as well as hidden plastic used to line the inside of tin cans, which was originally introduced to protect us from metal toxins! Ninety-three percent of people were found to have “detectable levels of BPA in their urine”, according to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and children and adolescents were found to have a higher level than adults. Another of the culprits is a group of chemicals called phthalates, which make plastics soft and are also used as binding agents. The use of certain phthalates in toys has actually been banned in Europe and the US, but they can still be found in thousands of other products, including food packaging and even vinyl flooring.
So what effect do these chemicals have on our health and wellbeing? There is emerging evidence that these chemicals disrupt our endocrine system, which is the collection of glands that produce hormones. At the moment more research is needed to determine how significant an effect these chemicals have on human health and well-being in the doses we are typically exposed to, but it is known that these endocrine disruptors (EDCs), and xenoestrogens – basically “foreign” oestrogens, produced outside of the body (birth control, for example, is a controlled xenoestrogen) – essentially mimic or block our natural hormones. High levels of hormone imbalance will prevent our bodies from functioning properly, which could lead to prostate issues and low sperm count in men, while women could be at a greater risk of miscarriage, menstrual irregularities and endometriosis. In children and adolescents, exposure to EDCs has been linked to asthma, diabetes, early-onset puberty and cognitive impairment. They could also cause substantial damage to developing foetuses.
Don’t use cling film. Cover with a glass or stainless steel lid instead. Never put plastic containers of food in the microwave
So how can we avoid these toxic chemicals? Reducing your use of plastic is the best option. If you tried to list all the plastic that you use in your daily life, you would probably find that the list is endless, and quite daunting! Unless you decide to go and live in the middle of nowhere (and I don’t think such a place even exists anymore), then I’m afraid complete elimination of plastics from your life is probably not possible. But there are some ways that you can cut down on plastic use:
Don’t buy bottled water if you can help it. I know that sometimes it’s more convenient, but try to avoid it if you can. Never drink water that has been left in a hot car in a plastic bottle – findings indicate that toxins leach out much faster when plastic is heated. I filter and store my water in glass bottles, which probably look a little like vodka bottles as I drink out of them at the gym. You can get plastic-free vessels really easily now.
Don’t store food in plastic containers. You can find glass containers, as well as other materials such as stainless steel and bamboo, which are also more eco-friendly.
Don’t use cling film. Cover with a glass or stainless steel lid instead. Try not to buy processed foods that are always wrapped in plastic. Never put plastic containers of food in the microwave. Be cautious about canned foods.
Finally, avoid anything with a recycle sign that has a three or a seven as these indicate they may contain BPAs.