Plastics and Health

I’ve been seeing a lot of media attention lately to plastic – both related to our health and to the environment.  And this attention is well deserved. 

As a naturopathic doctor, I’m concerned with imbalances in the body that might contribute to symptoms that individuals are experiencing and to the development of disease.  And plastics are definitely capable of creating imbalances! While plastic is useful for creating a variety of durable products that we use on a daily basis, it contains a variety of chemicals that are known to affect human health, particularly by affecting hormonal balance.

BPA is a molecule added to soften plastic – it’s found in soft plastics like water bottles and toys as well as being used in the lining of canned food and beverages.  This molecule has estrogen-like effects in the body, meaning it tricks the body to think there is more estrogen.  Excess estrogen action in the body is linked to a variety of cancers, women’s health concerns and harm to developing children and fetuses. 

Phthalates are another category of concerning molecules, these are used to make plastic more flexible.  They have been linked to hormonal disruption and fertility issues. 

Now you might be thinking, if those molecules are inside the plastic, the shouldn’t be harming us.  The challenge is, when plastic is exposed to heat or light, it releases a variety of compounds.  If you’ve ever put spaghetti or chili in a Tupperware container and then tried to scrub away the stain, you’ll know that it’s not a perfect barrier and that the food and plastic interact.  A recent study found 93% of bottled water contained microscopic particles of plastic within the water (http://www.cbc.ca/news/technology/microbeads-toxic-substance-1.3558399) .  While they could not identify if the plastics entered the water prior to bottling or after, this is highly concerning. 

The challenge is that companies are always working hard to convince you that their products are safe, not always correctly.  You’ll probably remember the huge amount of publicity around the announcement that BPA was declared unsafe.  This was followed by a huge market response of plastic products labeled as “BPA-free”.  Seems great, right? Not quite.  This recent study found that the molecules being added instead of the BPA (it’s called BPS) are just as harmful (https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/bpa-free-plastic-containers-may-be-just-as-hazardous/) .

The other concern about plastic is the environmental toll.  Plastics do not decompose, once created, they exist forever, just breaking down into smaller particles.  If they are put in the garbage, they will exist in a landfill forever.  The garbage that ends up leaving the landfill causes a host of damage, particularly in our oceans.  There are stories of wildlife choking on plastic straws which often end up in the ocean and can be mistaken for food, whales dying with stomachs full of plastic and a variety of other sad stories (http://www.onegreenplanet.org/environment/how-plastic-is-harming-animals-the-planet-and-us/).  Iit has been estimated that by 2050, the ocean will contain more plastic than fish.  Check out this great piece in National Geographic to learn more (https://www.boredpanda.com/plastic-crisis-impact-on-wildlife-national-geographic-june-issue-cover/)

You might say – I put plastic in the recycling! There are a lot of misconceptions about recycling.  Unfortunately, because of contamination, a lot of items put into recycling actually end up in the landfill (http://www.cbc.ca/news/technology/recycling-contamination-1.4606893).  As well, the cycle of recycling isn’t continuous.  Many people imagine that when they recycle a water bottle, it gets made into another water bottle, but unfortunately this can’t be done (although science is hopefully working towards this).  Plastic water bottles are turned into carpet and clothing but when these are at the end of their useful life, they end up in the garbage.  While this is definitely better than one-time-use, it still results in waste. 

So what can you do? Here are some tips!

-Avoid single use plastic items (plastic shopping bags and baggies, plastic wrap, plastic straws and cutlery)

-Do not purchase bottled water – use a refillable one (glass or stainless steel),

-Ask for no straw in your water at a restaurant, bring your own shopping bags to the grocery store

-To minimize the health impact, avoid using plastic around food.  Store left overs in glass containers (try mason jars or using salsa, almond butter or pickle jars that you would have otherwise recycled).

-Be especially careful with avoiding contact between warm food and plastic or heating food within plastic containers  

-concerns about the health effects of exposure to plastics and other chemicals? The body has detoxification pathways to eliminate these molecules and these can be supported with naturopathic medicine – speak to your ND!