Thursday, April 7, 2011

Plastic & BPA

If you've been reading my blog for very long, you are probably aware that I don't like plastic. I think it's dangerous for our health, and bad for the environment (and just plain ugly, to boot!). One of my goals towards more natural living is to eventually live mostly plastic free -- I've recently been doing some research on how to deal with garbage without those nifty can liners, one of the few places I've yet to give up the plastic. I think next time I run out of them, I won't be buying any more. I can wash my kitchen receptacle a couple times a week, right? Sure. We only empty the can about once a week anyhow, since we don't produce much trash. And since I am now putting all of my leftover produce bits and pieces into my garden, there will be very little "messy" garbage in the bin anyhow. So there's that. We'll never be completely plastic free though, since there are certain food items I have no intention of giving up, but that can only be purchased in plastic containers. But still. We can all reduce our output, even if we're not willing to live quite like Bea (though she is constantly offering great ideas for reducing your waste output; be sure to check out her blog!). Now onto the subject of this post!

BPA is a term most of us are very familiar with now days. We know it's bad and that we don't want it in our bodies. But what is it, what does it do to us, how can we prevent ourselves and our loved ones from exposure to it, and is BPA-free plastic really safe?

To answer the first question in brief terms, BPA (or Bisphenol-A) is a chemical used to harden plastic (think water bottles, baby bottles, food storage containers). It is also used in epoxy resins, which are used to coat the inside of tin cans, baby formula containers, and water bottle tops. The problem with BPA (or at least the one we're most aware of) is that it acts in our bodies like estrogen, which can result in serious hormonal imbalances and reproductive problems.

The FDA, however, refuses to classify BPA as a toxin and stated in 2010 that "Studies employing standardized toxicity tests have thus far supported the safety of current  low levels of  human exposure to BPA." but then went on to say that they do have "concerns" about its subtle toxic effect on the brain, behavior, and prostate gland in fetuses, infants, and young children.

I think that only time will tell us just how dangerous BPA really is, but I think it is clear that there is some level of danger posed by regular exposure to it. Plastics are believed by many to be at least partially responsible for things like girls hitting puberty at an average age of 9 years old (and as much as 10% of 7 year old girls are beginning to develop breasts). The fact of the matter is, there is a lot we still don't know about plastics and how dangerous they are for us, but when you consider how new they are in the history of the world and how prevalent fertility problems (among other things) are becoming, for example, you can't help but wonder how much chemicals from plastics are contributing to that problem (I think there are a whole host of contributing factors and that yes, plastic is absolutely one of them!). And it's not just a problem for young girls. Older females, and males of all ages are being adversely affected by these estrogen-like chemicals. The infertility rate in women aged 20-24 has tripled in this country since 1965. Male infertility is at an all-time high in industrialized countries. A whopping 30-40% of males are estimated to have fertility problems today, and are responsible for around half of the instances of infertility (1/3 exclusive to the male, 1/3 to the female, and 1/3 to a combination of partners). In British couples seeking help from ART (assisted reproductive technology), the majority of cases are due to problems with the male's fertility.

So now you are aware of some of the dangers of BPA and other chemicals found in plastics. Here are some easy steps you can take to avoid exposure to BPAs for yourself and your family:

  1. Throw out your plastic food storage containers and switch to glass, especially for leftovers that are placed into storage containers hot, which can increase the leaching of BPA into foods.
  2. Breastfeed your babies. Unless you have a medical condition that prevents it breastfeeding is almost always possible, with the right coaching and persistence. This saves you money and your baby exposure to BPAs at a young age when they are most susceptible to damage. If breastfeeding is truly impossible for you, purchase glass bottles instead of plastic, and look for a friend willing to donate breastmilk for your baby, or contact a milk bank for help.
  3. Avoid canned foods, since many liners contain BPA. Foods of pH 5 leach more BPA than those that are more acid or alkaline, according to a study on BPA (though it is my understanding that most fruits and vegetables are more acid or alkaline than a pH 5). 
  4. If you do use plastic food storage containers, never put them in the microwave! This can increase the levels of BPA leaching into your foods. Also, avoid washing them with harsh detergents which can also increase leaching.
  5. Buy glass or ceramic bottles for your water.  Many of them come with silicone sleeves for protection so you don't have to worry quite so much about easy breakage. The market for these has exploded since I first started looking into buying some and there are a host of options available now.
  6. Stop drinking soda (the aluminum cans are lined with plastic and sodas have a pH 5, making them one of the worst offenders for leaching chemicals into your beverage).
So now, is BPA-free plastic safe? In a word, no. But it is a slight improvement over plastics with BPA. The problem in general with plastic (as far as your physical wellbeing is concerned) is that there are far more chemicals in it than just BPA, and many of them have the very same effect on your health as BPA (some of the effects of these chemicals were discussed above).

Also, don't forget to consider the environment. Plastic grocery bags, as an example, were first introduced in 1977 to replace the good old bio-degradable paper sacks. By the 80's and 90's they were becoming more popular than the paper sacks. Imagine this for a moment. This means that for the past 34 years we've all been lugging home our purchases in these plastic bags and then sending them off to landfills. The very first plastic shopping bag to make it to the landfill is still there. Some say that plastic bags take 100 years to degrade. Others say 500 years. Some even 1000. The fact is the bags have only been around for about 50 years, so we don't know from real world experience. Scientists have tried to figure it out, but even using a method called respirometry (which tells us banana peels degrade in days and newspapers a few months), nothing happens to the plastic bag. So whether it takes 100 years or 1000, the point is simply that it takes a very long time.



  1. Hmm, you've got me thinking about trash bags now. Some places require trash to be in bags to be picked up, so I need to research biodegradable options.

    I've been slowly working plastic out of our household. But we still have a ways to go. This is good encouragement to keep plugging along.

  2. You can call the city, I think it is (or maybe your waste removal provider), to find out if you have to put your trash in bags. I know we don't here....

    I've heard that for now, biodegradable trash bags are pretty flimsy. One reviewer said you pretty much have to take the trash out daily to prevent the bag from getting too heavy and breaking. Of course, this also depends greatly on how much waste you produce I'm sure!

  3. I always wondered what was in BPA free plastics. It's funny.

    I'm re-inspired to keep my home filled with natural fibers. Thanks for this post!

  4. Yeah, a study came out recently saying that BPA-free plastics had pretty much identical ill-effects on health. Phthalates and stuff are no good either, but most people don't seem concerned about those chemicals. :-P