You probably know that plastics can release toxic chemicals. But you may not know quite what to do about it because plastics are everywhere.
The problem: A chemical commonly used in plastics, bisphenol-A (BPA), has powerful, hormonelike effects. It is an endocrine disruptor that has been linked to increased risk for a variety of cancers, including breast and prostate cancers. A government task force issued a report suggesting that BPA also might be an obesogen, a chemical that causes obesity. In addition, there's some evidence that BPA is linked to low sperm quality in men.
A study that looked at 2,517 Americans ages six and older found that 93% had traces of BPA in their bodies.
You may not be able to avoid plastics altogether, but you can minimize your exposure. Patricia Hunt, PhD, a leading BPA researcher, talks about what she does to keep herself and her family safe…
- Don't take the receipt. The thermal paper that's used for many receipts-from ATMs, supermarkets, etc.-often is coated with BPA. (It keeps the ink from running.) BPA is readily absorbed by the skin. Studies have shown that people who handle a lot of receipts tend to have higher-than-expected levels of BPA.
Caution: The transdermal (through the skin delivery of BPA is enhanced if you have cream or oil on your hands when you handle a receipt. And you certainly shouldn't hold a receipt in your mouth while you're fumbling for the car keys. If you must take a receipt, wash your hands afterward.
- Be wary of "BPA-free" plastics. Some companies have phased out products made of plastics that contain BPA and have developed a new kind of plastic that doesn't contain BPA. More and more companies are introducing these BPA-free plastics.
It's a step in the right direction-but unfortunately, other chemicals in plastics may be just as risky.
Example: Some companies advertising BPA-free containers are using plastics made from structurally related compounds, such as bisphenol-AF or bisphenol-S. Does this make them safer? We don't know for certain, but recent studies suggest that bisphenol-AF actually may be more dangerous.
Until we know more, I advise people to use reusable food and drink containers that are made from glass or stainless steel. I've switched to stainless steel containers when I want to take water with me.
- Don't let plastic wrap touch food. Even at room temperature or in the refrigerator, Saran type wraps can potentially release some of their chemicals into the foods that they touch.
I advise people to seek alternatives to clear plastic wraps (such as tinfoil or glass storage containers) or to use plastic wraps only to cover containers. Or wrap food in a paper towel or waxed paper before putting it into a plastic bag. Also, be aware that a "dry" product is less likely to absorb toxic chemicals than a "wet" product.
- Don't heat plastics. Don't put plastics in the dishwasher or microwave. We're all familiar with the plastic-y smell that wafts from a freshly washed plastic container or a microwave-hot container. In reality, that is the smell of chemicals escaping.
High heat accelerates the migration of chemicals out of household plastics such as containers and spatulas.
Caution: Don't assume that products labeled "microwave safe" are truly safe. It means only that the plastic won't melt in the microwave. It doesn't mean that it's chemical-free.
- Discard damaged containers. We all have our favorite storage containers that are the perfect size and shape. We tend to hang on to them even when the lids don't fit right and the sides are warped.
If you're not ready to get rid of all your plastic, at least discard the damaged items. A damaged plastic container is breaking down. When this happens, chemicals are being released.
- Freeze safely. Cold is less likely than heat to accelerate the migration of chemicals from containers into food. However, we know that even very low levels of BPA can produce profound changes in the body. The longer food is in contact with any BPA-containing plastic, the greater the risk of exposure. I recommend using glass canning jars for freezing.
- Choose waxed paper sandwich bags. We're so used to plastic bags-for sandwiches, cut vegetables, leftover fruit, etc.--that we forget that these are fairly recent inventions. People used to use waxed paper bags, which are much safer. I use them when I pack my lunch. Unfortunately, they're getting harder to find. I had to try a few supermarkets before I found one that still carries them.
- Buy from the butcher. I hesitate to say this because supermarkets are convenient and usually have the best prices on meats. Unfortunately, most of the meats in supermarkets are bedded on trays of Styrofoam-like material, a polystyrene. Then they're wrapped in plastic, which also releases chemicals, so the meats get it from above and below.
Better: Meats from a traditional butcher shop usually are wrapped in brown or white paper. Ask your butcher to use old-fashioned butcher paper-some of the new papers may be coated with plastic.
- Replace the plastic you use most often. Once you realize how much plastic you have in the kitchen, it's tempting to throw up your hands and give up. If this is how you're feeling, a good first step is to find safer alternatives for the plastic things that you use regularly.
Examples: I replaced my plastic ice cube trays with metal trays—the old-fashioned kind that have a lever to loosen the cubes. I use wood cutting boards instead of plastic. When I pack my lunch, I include a reusable bamboo spork, which has a spoon on one end and a fork on the other—you can find them online.
- Opt for opaque. The food industry prefers clear or translucent packaging because it looks "cleaner." But in many cases, dear plastics are more likely to contain BPA and/or other harmful compounds.
Better: If you're going to use plastic, choose ones made from polypropylenes. These often are the opaque plastics.
Some plastic containers are stamped with recycling codes that indicate the types of plastic used. For example, containers marked with a "1" are made from polyethylene terephthalate. Products stamped with a "2" are made from high-density polyethylene. Unfortunately, these codes don't tell very much about how safe a particular plastic is.
Helpful: Use the mnemonic 5, 4, 1, 2-all the rest are bad for you." The "good" recycling codes may or may not contain harmful chemicals--but the "bad" ones almost certainly do.
- Watch out for cans. The vast majority of canned foods and beverages come in containers that are lined with a BPA-containing resin. Oily foods, such as tomato sauce, are particularly bad, so I buy that only in bottles.
I know that Eden Foods really works to ensure that its canned goods are safe (www.eden foods.com). Other companies such as HJ. Heinz, ConAgra and Hain Celestial have begun using BPA-free linings in some of their cans and have set timelines for eliminating the chemical from all products.