Plastics have gotten a lot of press in the past couple of years. Not only is plastic NOT an environmentally friendly choice, but there is a lot of concern over the leaching of chemicals out of plastic into our food, drinks, bodies and environment. The most widely known of these chemicals is BPA.
Bisphenol-A, or BPA, is a potent endocrine disruptor. Unfortunately, it is also a widely used component of plastic bottles and food packaging (like that used for fruits/veggies/soups in metal cans, soda/beer aluminum cans, some pouches for food storage, juice/water and baby bottles, etc). BPA is also found, perhaps in the greatest amounts, in cash register receipts. Simply touching receipts on a regular basis can result in a massive exposure to BPA.
Each year, over 6 billion tons of BPA are used to make polycarbonate plastics. Chemical bonds that BPA forms in plastic can unravel when heated, washed or exposed to acidic foods, prompting the chemical to contaminate foods. DEHP is a phthalate commonly used to soften PVC plastic. It can be found in some plastic packaging used for food. It is also linked to endocrine disruption.
Concerns about BPA are based on studies that have found harmful effects in animals, and on the recognition that the chemical seeps into food and baby formula. Nearly everyone is now exposed to BPA, starting in the womb.
BPA, which was first manufactured way back in 1891, was later developed as a plasticizer in the early 1960s. It was classified in 1963 as an indirect food additive and is listed among the 3,000 or so chemicals categorized as GRAS (“generally regarded as safe”).
In December of 2009, Consumer Reports reported testing 19 name brand canned foods, including:
- Green beans
Nearly all of the tested canned foods were contaminated with BPA, including organic canned foods. BPA was even found in some cans labeled “BPA-free.”
According to their estimates, just a couple of servings of canned food can exceed the daily safety limits for BPA exposure in children.
Your body is extremely sensitive to sex hormones, and miniscule amounts can induce profound changes. Therefore, since BPA imitates the sex hormone estradiol, scientists are afraid even low levels of BPA could have a negative impact. There are more than 100 independent studies linking the chemical to serious health problems in humans, including:
- Prostate cancer and breast cancer
- Diabetes and obesity
- Altered immune function
- Early sexual development in girls and disrupted reproductive function
- Decreased sperm count and other fertility problems
- Learning and behavioral problems, including hyperactivity
- Abnormal heart rhythms and coronary artery disease
- Increased fat formation
- Altered structure of the brain
Chemical companies maintain that BPA is harmless. None of the 11 studies funded by chemical companies found harmful effects caused by BPA, which the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has reported is detected in 95 percent of all patients tested. On the other hand, more than 90 percent of the studies conducted by scientists not associated with the chemical industry discovered negative consequences.
The FDA has finally stated that they agree with the National Toxicology Program at the National Institutes of Health and have “some concern about the potential effects of BPA on the brain, behavior and prostate gland of fetuses, infants and children.” Several states have taken action to ban BPA in baby bottles, but it’s been a long and slow process to get other action taken on BPA.
Due to pressure from consumers, new BPA-free plastics have sprouted up everywhere in items like water bottles, food storage containers, toys, plastic lids, etc, but there is new concern over what chemicals have replaced BPA in these items. Are they as bad as BPA or worse? Honestly, we just don’t know.
The fact is that plastics are full of chemicals and that the potential for harmful health effects are a very real possibility. Because of political pressure, corporate profits, an overly litigious culture and other nefarious forces, it’s probably going to be a long time before we have any concrete answers on the safety of plastics and even longer before manufacturers eliminate the dangerous substances from consumer products.
The best bet? Use glass. Glass canning jars are extremely useful for many, many kitchen and household tasks (one real food blogger said she’d rather have Mason jars than jewelry, lol!) and there are readily available options for glass food storage. However, most Mason jars have BPA on the underside of the metal lids (the cap and ring type). There are plastic, BPA-free lids available most places where jars are sold and these are reusable and attractive.
Here are some other tips to help minimize your BPA exposure
1. Avoid buying food in cans. Opt for fresh food, or those in glass jars when possible. Some manufacturers (like Eden Foods) use BPA-free cans and we use Eden beans and tomatoes when preparing dried beans or buying fresh tomatoes is not possible. Native Forest is the only brand of canned coconut milk we know of without BPA.
2. Likewise, don’t buy beverages in aluminum cans or plastic bottles. These are generally lined with BPA to avoid the leaching of aluminum into food (why we don’t use aluminum foil). Typically, beverages packaged in this way aren’t healthy anyway- processed juices, sports drinks, sodas, diet sodas and beer. Opt for beverages packed in glass bottles. This applies to bottled water as well. Either filter your own and use a glass bottle or buy a brand like Mountain Spring Water or Perrier if you are stuck without another option.
3. Bring your own bags to the store- canvas or cloth bags are best. There are also reusable (and washable) mesh bags for produce so that you can avoid the plastic produce sacks.
4. When storing food, opt for glass storage containers. The ones I use (Pyrex) have plastic, BPA-free lids, but even so, I am careful not to fill the containers high enough to touch the lids, just in case.
5. Don’t microwave or heat items in plastic. We hope you don’t use the microwave at all. Those microwavable veggies (that “steam in their own bag”) are really atrocious.
6. Avoid using plastic wrap and plastic baggies altogether. Use parchment paper, waxed bags, reusable bags or glass storage containers. (not aluminum foil) If you must use a plastic baggie, especially for freezer use, we highly recommend that you only put COLD items in the bag (place hot food in the fridge to cool down first) and generally we wrap the food in parchment paper or waxed bags inside the plastic bag, avoiding direct contact.
7. Replace your plastic dishes and cups with glass varieties. Never drink a hot beverage like coffee or tea from a plastic (or Styrofoam) cup. If you must have to-go ware, use a reusable, safe material.
8. Avoid using plastic pitchers, utensils, serving pieces, mixing bowls, measuring cups/spoons and food storage containers. “BPA-free” plastics are becoming more available, though they may carry their own risks. Use a safe material like glass, ceramic, stoneware, or stainless steel.
9. If possible, avoid dental sealants and use extreme caution with any dental appliances as some items can contain BPA. Most all dentistry materials are toxic on some level, so taking care of your teeth is very important. However, most of us will need dental care at some point, so do your best to minimize exposure to the most toxic materials
10. Use only glass baby bottles. There are some with protective covers to avoid breakage. Use safe utensils and dishes for children. Use cloth diapers instead of plastic. And give your baby non-plastic toys, like varieties that are made of safe untreated fabric (like wool) or non-toxic wood toys.
11. Minimize your handling of cash register receipts. I usually don’t get a receipt or, on purchases where I might need one for my records, I have the cashier place the receipt in the bag. I will remove it at home with a paper towel. Don’t store receipts in your wallet where they can contaminate money (already not the cleanest thing!), credit cards, etc. I wash my hands (with safe, non-toxic soap) after handling receipts when possible.
12. Buy reusable glass straws. There are several different varieties on the market and we just love ours. We use them for smoothies primarily, and they are easy to clean and pretty sturdy.
13. Avoid drinking water from the large, 5 gallon blue bottles typically used in water coolers. Despite the BPA/plastics concerns, these waters are often not more than glorified tap water. Some brands, like Mountain Valley Spring, deliver large glass bottles, and it is spring water, with fairly high ratings. You can also install a reverse osmosis filter system or use a Berkey water filter (our choice).
14. If you buy cheeses or other prepared items wrapped in plastic wrap, repackage them when you get home, using waxed bags, or wrap in parchment paper or cheese paper.
15. Avoid personal care products packaged in plastic (like creams and lotions). I just use coconut oil for my moisturizer most of the time. For non-toxic feminine protection, use tampons without applicators and tampons and pads made with untreated organic cotton (like Naturacare) or non-toxic fabric (like Lunapads, etc).
16. Buy olive oil and coconut oil in glass jars, rather than plastic bottles.
Despite our very best efforts, it is near impossible to COMPLETELY avoid plastic these days. However, taking a few easy steps like those outlined above can have dramatic results on your health. Recently a study was conducted that shows that even after just a week’s time of avoiding canned and packaged food, BPA levels dropped dramatically.
The study involved 5 families, with a total of 20 participants. In the study, over a 3 day period, the families ate food that was prepared and stored with minimal canned foods or plastic food packaging.
During the three day period of minimal canned food and plastic packaging, a caterer prepared and delivered food, avoiding foods packaged in plastic and canned foods. Urine samples were collected before (on days 1 and 2), during (on days 4 and 5), and after this “fresh food” diet. After the “fresh food” diet, the families returned to their normal diet, and urine samples were collected on days 7 and 8.
The urine samples were analyzed for BPA and 7 chemicals that assess for exposure to 5 different phthalates – DEHP (used in some food packaging), DEP, DBP, BBP and DMP.
The study results showed that while the families were eating the “fresh food” diet, their BPA levels dropped on average by more than 60%. For the three metabolites that were used to measured exposure to the phthalate DEHP, all 3 dropped by more than 50% during the “fresh food” diet. When the participants returned to their regular diets, BPA levels increased to approximately the pre-intervention levels. (1)
As more and more consumers OPT OUT of using plastics, there will be more and more companies that provide alternatives. Safer toys, glass packaging for food and beverages, and safer receipts, bags and containers. These alternatives are generally more environmentally friendly as well- a win-win for everyone.
Remember: You vote with your dollars AND your fork, everyday. Make a statement about what is important to you and positively impact the future health of our planet by demonstrating responsible buying practices now.
(1) The complete study, entitled “Food Packaging and Bisphenol A and Bis(2-ethylhexyl) Phthalate Exposure: Findings from a Dietary Intervention” by Ruthann R. Rudel, Janet M. Gray, Connie L. Engel, Teresa W. Rawsthorne, Robin E. Dodson, Janet M. Ackerman, Jeanne Rizzo, Janet L. Nudelman, and Julia Green Brody is available online.