Plastic and our health: Is there really a link?
Plastic and our health: Not just about bottles
I am so excited to have our environmental ob back with us to share some very important information on plastics and their effect on us. The impact is not only on the environment, these chemicals actually affect your very health. As you may remember, Dr. Marie Angelique Cabiya is an obstetrician/gynecologist who feels passionate about the environment and is leading many efforts, at both her community and government level, to try and protect the environment (and ourselves) from further damage. This post is loaded with great information and I can’t wait for you to read what she has to say! So, read on to learn more about the link between plastic and our health.
The truth about personal care products
Have you ever counted the amount of personal care products that you slather on every morning? A 2015 study by the Environmental Working Group found that the average woman uses nine to twelve products per day. This translates into 168 chemicals per day, about twice as many as men. Most of us have seen the terms “Phtalates” or “BPA” as they are common in product labels and plastic containers these days, but what does it all mean?? Phthalates and BPA are endocrine disrupting chemicals (EDCs). They are two of the most common ones. They act by mimicking or interfering with hormones.
Just what do these chemicals do?
Just like hormones, endocrine disruptors act in every organ system. Several studies link exposure to EDCs with many poor health outcomes. Just to name a few: infertility, polycystic ovarian syndrome, heart disease and hypertension, endometriosis, some types of cancer, such as breast and testicular, as well as obesity and diabetes. Health agencies, such as the World Health Organization and the National Toxicology Program, express concern about the impact of BPA in fetal brain development and behavior. Some hypothesize that BPA contributes to the development of behavioral disorders, such as ADHD. Unfortunately, these chemicals are difficult to study. Why? Because you find them in so many products and the level of exposure varies among individuals, so we need more research.
Exposure to EDCs occurs through food and skin. However, fetuses can also be affected when these chemicals cross the placenta. The majority of exposure to BPA and phthalates comes from food, personal care products, and dust. The likeliest offenders are food items high in animal fats, canned, or highly processed foods.
Where do we find them?
Many everyday products link plastic and our health. The list of personal care products containing EDCs includes nail polish, cosmetics, shampoo, and lotion. Other products such as candles, air fresheners, and detergents also contain EDC’s. Anything with the word “fragrance” likely contains an endocrine disruptor. Even household exposures, such as building materials like flooring, paint, glue, and some art supplies contain EDC’s. BPA and phthalates can leach out of plastics containers and can liners, particularly when heated. Pay attention to labels and avoid these chemicals: phthalate, DEP, DBP, DEHP and any words containing “paraben”.
Furthermore, plastics labeled as “BPA free” may contain an alternative called BPS which is not any safer. Other EDCs are also found in fabrics treated with flame retardants. You may have noticed that many labels in kids’ pajamas note that the fabric was treated with these. Some chemicals commonly used in the home as pesticides for insects or rodents, as well as herbicides (such as atrazine, 2,4-D, and glycophosphate) are also EDCs.
What is the impact?
Unfortunately, kids are likelier to have higher levels of these chemicals. Why? They eat more in proportion to their body weight, breathe faster, and simply tend to put their hands in their mouth more often.
More than 87,000 chemicals have been approved for commercial use since the 1970s. However, only about one thousand of those have been tested for safety. Even more concerning, half of those tested have been labeled as “known” or “possibly” carcinogenic. With those statistics in mind, it’s safe to assume that most of what is available on the shelves at the store contains ingredients that have not been tested for safety. That is why many scientists are for the ‘precautionary principle’. That means we should try to avoid using an ingredient until it has been proven to be safe.
What can I do?
Fortunately, there are many ways to decrease our exposure to EDCs. In fact, levels of BPA decreases rapidly after simple interventions, like avoiding canned foods. Here are some tips from the Environmental Health Specialty Units. This is a network of experts who provide medical information and advice on environmental conditions influencing reproductive and children’s health.
- Buy low fat dairy products, such as skim milk and low fat cheeses.
- Buy fresh or frozen fruits and vegetables when possible. Avoid canned and processed foods.
- Purchase items that are phthalate free or BPA free. Materials such as glass, stainless steel, or wood are your best bets.
- Minimize personal care product use. Keep it simple, less is more.
- Do not microwave food/beverages in plastic.
- If using hard polycarbonate plastics (found in some water bottles/baby bottles/sippy cups), do not use for warm/hot liquids.
- If plastics cannot be avoided, use the following guide to avoid particularly dangerous plastics. Check the symbol on the bottom of plastics containers and try to avoid the plastics marked 3 (PVC or vinyl), 6 (polystyrene foam, commonly called ‘Styrofoam’), or 7 (can contain BPA).
- Encourage frequent handwashing.
- Minimize handling of receipts.
- Take shoes off at home to avoid tracking in dust that may contain these chemicals.
- Keep carpets/windowsills clean. Vacuum and wet dust frequently to minimize dust that may contain these chemicals.
- Consider making your own detergents from safe ingredients like vinegar and baking soda.
So much work?!
I get it, I also don’t have all the time in the world to research every single product I use, which is why I try to buy less and make my own when I can (for example, mouthwash and cleaning products). That way, I know exactly what goes in it. Antibacterial products are largely unnecessary. Furthermore, commonly found ingredients such as triclosan, have been linked to endocrine disruption as well as antibacterial resistance. Some clues that a product may contain triclosan are claims like “fights odors” and “fights germs.”
When purchasing personal care products, I have found the Environmental Working Group to be a very user friendly source to assess a product’s safety. They have an extensive database and an app that allows you to scan products quickly and easily.
The Safe Cosmetics and Personal Care Products Act was introduced last year to provide strong consumer protections. It protects vulnerable populations like pregnant women, children, and beauty salon workers by creating a standard based on reasonable certainty of no harm. It immediately bans some of the most toxic chemicals in cosmetics, provides public access to serious event reports, and gives the FDA the authority to recall products deemed to be unsafe. If you want to support this bill, you can contact your state Representative. Until this bill is enacted, the safest thing we can do as consumers is to learn how to limit our exposure to these potentially harmful chemicals.
That is all for today. Thanks for reading and thanks to Dr. Cabiya for taking the time to share her knowledge on the impacts of plastic and our health!