The case for certain plastics causing harm to people, in particular our children is coming clear.
We now know for sure that many plastics can cause damage to our developing brains, and impair fertility.
A recent guide to just which plastics we should avoid, and how to substantially avoid them was published in the NY Times, https://www.nytimes.com/article/plastics-to-avoid.html
Let’s take a close look at the danger and steps you can take to protect.
First, a word on what is plastic.
What is Plastic?
Plastic is essentially a polymer spun from oil. Oil is the goo left over from prehistoric forests whose burial kept them from rotting away. If compressed into stone those organic forests became coal, but if left to gather underground over the eons, they decompose to become oil. Either way, coal or oil, the start are masses of eons of forests and bushes, which like all of life, are structured with complex mixes of carbon chains.
Carbon is an element whose atom can connect to four other atoms. And it just so happens that it is very, very adept at connecting to other carbon atoms. We know many of these carbon chains of atoms. Perhaps the most famous is a simple chain of 8 carbon atoms, one carbon atom linked to another, with all their other open bonding sites attached to hydrogen. That 8-carbon chain is called octane, and if you ever drove a car, you have burned it to move, it is the main ingredient of gasoline.
Another famous carbon chain is six carbons in a row, but this chain is a circle, with the sixth carbon coming around and attaching to the first. In this ring, many of the open sites are occupied by oxygen as well as hydrogen, but this is still a ring of 6 carbons and it is called glucose. If you have ever eaten table sugar you have had glucose, and all plants and animals run on it. Other chains of carbon fashion all our proteins, and all the proteins of all life, viruses, bacteria, plants, and animals, all life.
So take a mat of living material, say a dying forest, and you will have a mat of countless chains of carbon. That is why oil is almost purely chains of carbon and why octane is found in crude oil.
Now oil companies made fuel (kerosene and gasoline, propane and methane) from the chains of carbon in their oil, but they found if you link the chains of carbon by the thousands, you can create a nearly limitless variety of materials.
Those materials, crafted from chains of carbons, to create chains that stretch across thousands of carbon atoms are all called plastics.
Not all plastics are bad. If the long, long chain of carbons is stable, if the plastic sticks inside its device without coming loose, that is if the carbon chains of the plastic stay the away from our bodies, then they can do no harm.
But there are some plastics that do not stay put, they leak, they get absorbed by our bodies, they interact with our systems. These plastics are so abundant that almost everyone has them in their body, including our children, and some of them, in our bodies, cause harm. One set of chemicals, the bisphenols, are some of the basic units used to create those long chains, or polymers we call plastics. And curiously, the one group of chemicals considered most harmful to humanity is not the plastic itself, but chemicals added to plastics to give them valuable and useful properties, like being more flexible.
Phthalates and Bisphenols
For two groups of chemicals, the phthalates and bisphenols, the evidence of harm they cause is greater than for most other elements of the chemical world of plastics.
The bisphenols are actually a category of chemicals used to make various epoxies, but also to serve as part of the repeating unit in the chain of carbon atoms that make a very widely used plastic, called polycarbonate. Polycarbonate is the plastic used to make transparent, hard plastics, like those seen in water coolers, and very, very many other such products. The most familiar bisphenol is the A type, or BPA.
The phthalates are not plastics, but a category of chemicals that added to plastic give it highly valued properties, including being flexible, durable, transparent. They feature prominently in the plastic called PVC, and others as well, all of which are widely used in products like plastic flooring, food processing tubing and materials, cosmetic products like nail polish. Flooring and wall coverings loaded with phthalates release them into the air and enter our bodies by breathing it. The phthalates used in food production and packaging leak into our food, and the phthalates enter our body by eating food containing these chemicals. Sadly, phthalates transmit readily from mother to fetus during pregnancy.
How Many People Have Elevated Levels of Phthalates or Bisphenols
These two groups of chemicals, so widely found in our air, water, cosmetics, even drug capsules, are in most humans in substantially elevated amounts.
Many studies have found that about 98% of all of us, including pregnant women, have phthalates in our urine at any one point in time. Now phthalates leave the body soon after they arrive, so if they are in your urine that means you breathed or swallowed or touched them in the last few hours. The fact that 98% of the time we measure urine for phthalates they are there means that we are nearly constantly taking in these chemicals.
A national survey of BPA, the most well-known bisphenol, found that in thousands of urine samples in people ages 6 years old and up, 93% of the samples contained BPA.
So if we wonder, what’s the chance you, or I, or any person has phthalates and/or bisphenols in them the answer is yes, essentially everyone has these chemicals related to plastics in their bodies.
What Harm do These Chemicals Cause?
The real problem is here. These chemicals harm the development and function of two major functions of our lives- reproduction and thinking.
Damage to our reproductive system results in higher risk of infertility, higher risk of infertility, early puberty in boys and later puberty in girls.
Damage to the developing brain has resulted in a very wide range of quite serious problems. Exposures to phthalates in particular has been directly linked to our children suffering substantially increased risks of:
- Autism Spectrum Disorder
- ADHD with heightened risk of hyperactivity, impulsivity, and inattention
- Behavior problems
- Impaired executive function.
- Aggressive actions
These observations have been supported by studies in animals that reveal exposure to phthalates alters the actual architecture of the brain, and the changes are in the areas of the brain that manage the above functions- behavior, sociability, attention, task completion, aggression.
Steps You Can Take to Drop your Exposure by at Least 66%
- Eat more fresh foods that are not wrapped. Produce not wrapped in plastic have few phthalates and bisphenols in or on them. The more you eat of these foods, the less you and your children will be exposed.
- Avoid Cans are lined with bisphenols to prevent rusting, and are a major source of exposure to them. Use soups and sauces and juices packaged in plastic-free cartons.
Just these two steps dropped urine levels of BPA by 66%!
- Avoid containers, switch to glass or metal(neither lined with plastic) for baby bottles, sippy cups, containers, fluid bottles. Many plastic containers are BPA but not bisphenol free, don’t be fooled!
- Avoid plastics with recycling numbers 3 (contains phthalates) and 7 (contains bisphenols). And the Times article also warns against exposure to styrene, the plastic in styrofoam which likely causes cancer, it is indicated by the recycle number 6. But it is best to simply avoid plastic containers for any items, including shampoo.
- Do not heat plastic. Heating it releases the phthalates and bisphenols. So don’t microwave food in a plastic container.
- Clear your house of This is a tall order, but a lot of toxins gather in dust, including phthalates and bisphenols. Another chemical, used as a flame retardant in the black resin of all our computers and cell phones, evaporates into our air in our homes, attaches to dust, too. So make sure your vacuum has a HEPA-filter that can really keep the dust in the bag.
- Change vinyl accessoriesin the home to cloth, such as shower curtains, bath mats, and place mats.
- Avoid touching store receipts. Believe it or not, they are coated with bisphenols that absorb through your skin. (See why 98% of us have bisphenols in our urine at any moment in time?)
- Choose cosmetic and body care products, especially for our babies, that are phthalate and bisphenol free. From baby oil, to shampoo, to lipstick, this is not easy. Check out the EWG Database which can really help: https://www.ewg.org/skindeep/
Steps our Nation can Take to Reduce our Exposure Substantially More
- The United States should stop using phthalates, period. They impair our babies’ and children’s minds, and can interfere with fertility. This can be achieved by public pressure on manufacturers and their brands, on state laws, and ultimately on Federal law and policy.
- The FDA should immediately ban use of phthalates from all food wrappings, medications, medical devices.
- Congress and the Consumer Protection Safety Commission need to take steps to stop us being exposed to phthalates and bisphenols, and not just one of them like BPA, but all chemicals in both of these categories.
Great Resources on this Topic
The American Academy of Pediatrics offers great resources summarizing the story of these chemicals:
And here is a great resources from the Pediatric Environmental Health Specialty Unit: https://nyscheck.org/plastic/
(PEHSU’s are really great resources for any question you have on harms that may come from the environment to our children.
The article published by the American Journal of Public Health was covered by CNN: https://www.cnn.com/2021/02/20/health/baby-brain-damage-plastic-phthalates-wellness/index.html
The CNN article features excellent quotes and discussion from the authors, and the former Director of the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences, Dr. Linda Birnbaum, and now a colleague at TENDR, along with comments from the chemical industry, EPA and FDA, as well as mention of EDF and other groups’ petition to FDA to consider cumulative effects of exposures to thousands of chemicals added to food packaging and processing.
Finally, here is a special report, just published on February 18, 2021 by Project TENDR (www.projecttendr.com) a consortium of the nation’s leading epidemiologists, neurotoxicologists, and clinicians that identify threats to the development of our children’s brains: This is in the Journal of the American Public Health Association– https://ajph.aphapublications.org/doi/abs/10.2105/AJPH.2020.306014
- Plastics are a great convenience, but certain chemicals used in plastics can cause terrible harm.
- Two highlighted here are the phthalates and bisphenols, which are known to impair fertility and impair brain development.
- When it comes to brain development, phthalates are now known to increase the chance our children will develop autism, ADHD, behavior problems, weak executive functioning, and heightened aggression.
- Phthalates and bisphenols are in so many plastics that essentially all of us are soaking in them. Tests of urine find them present in 98% (phthalates) and 93% (BPA) of us at any time. These chemicals go right through the body of pregnant women, exposing our developing fetuses.
- It will be awhile before our nation stops using these toxins, but in the meantime, good news, you can take steps to sharply drop your exposure to them. Just starting with eating mainly fresh foods without plastic wrap and avoiding use of cans can drop bisphenol exposure by 66%!
- To really solve this problem, we need to stop manufacturing and using all phthalates and bisphenols.
The words phthalate and bisphenol sound so technical. Even thinking about the harm they cause, and taking actions to avoid exposures seems daunting.
But the harm is simple to describe, and steps you can take to protect your child’s developing mind and reproductive system are fairly easily stated too.
Here is to a day when we stop making chemicals that really do poison and hurt us, we can do it.
To your health,
Dr. Arthur Lavin