Our homes are filled with plastics, and most of us don’t really know what they’re made of — or whether they’re safe. The Environmental Working Group has put together these tips to help you choose better plastics and plastic alternatives for your family:
- Why you should pick plastics carefully.
- How to choose and use safer plastics.
- Finding safer, non-plastic alternatives.
WHY YOU SHOULD CHOOSE PLASTICS CAREFULLY.
The toxicity of plastics is not fully understood or adequately tested. What we do know is that most plastics contain chemical additives to change the quality of the plastic for its intended use (examples are to make it softer or resistant to UV light). Some of these ingredients or additives we know are harmful, like the plastics chemical bisphenol-A (BPA) and the plastic softeners called phthalates. Others, we just don’t know enough about.
We also know that plastics chemicals routinely migrate, or leach, into the food and water they contain. While the amount may be small, it has not been proven safe. As EWG senior scientist Dr. Anila Jacob told Web MD recently,
Although most of the chemicals making the culinary crossing are considered “safe,” Jacob tells WebMD that’s generally not because they’ve been proved safe, but rather they haven’t been proven to be unsafe.
“There is very little published research on the potential adverse health effects of chemicals that leach from plastic food containers, so it’s difficult to say they’re safe with any degree of certainty, especially with long-term use,” says Jacob.
BPA and phthalates, however, are better understood. They are both potent hormone disruptors that are increasingly linked to health effects like brain and behavior changes, cancer, and reproductive system damages.
Plastics are continually changing and there are unknowns. Use them with caution, especially those that are commonly found in our households and have contact with our food and our bodies.
CHOOSE AND USE SAFER PLASTICS — WHERE IT MATTERS MOST.
Because plastics are ubiquitous today, choose them carefully to minimize your exposures. Avoiding them altogether isn’t practical, so we suggest you focus on those that are likely to come into contact with your mouth — the most common way chemicals in plastic consumer products enter the body. Plastic chemicals touch your mouth in a number of ways: from your hands and your food and drink. This is especially important for young children, who frequently put hands and objects in their mouths.
Plastics to avoid:
- Stay away from toys marked with a “3” or “PVC” (PVC stands for polyvinyl chloride, commonly called vinyl). PVC is often mixed with phthalates, a toxic additive that makes plastic more flexible. While phthalates were recently banned in new children’s toys, they may be in toys made before February 2009 when the ban went into effect, as well as in shower curtains, inflatable beach toys, raincoats and toys for children older than 12.
- Avoid polycarbonate containers (sometimes marked with a #7 or “PC”), especially for children’s food and drinks. These plastics are rigid and transparent, like plastic food storage containers and water bottles, among other things. Trace amounts of BPA can migrate from these containers, particularly if used for hot food or liquids. Soft or cloudy-colored plastic does not contain BPA.
A recent study from Harvard University found that college students drinking their cold drinks from polycarbonate bottles had 93% more BPA in their bodies than during the weeks that they drank liquids from other containers.
We recommend the use of glass over plastics. When you have no choice, plastics marked with a #1, 2, 4, or 5 don’t contain BPA and may be better choices.
How to handle plastics:
When you do use plastics, handle them safely. We suggest that you:
- Don’t microwave food or drinks in plastic containers — even if they claim to be “microwave safe.” Heat can break down plastics and release chemical additives into your food and drink. Microwaves heat unevenly, creating hot spots where the plastic is more likely to break down.
- Use plastic containers for cool liquids — not hot.
- Don’t reuse single-use plastics. They can break down and release plastics chemicals when used repeatedly.
- Avoid old, scratched plastic water bottles. Exposures to plastics chemicals may be greater when the surface is worn down.
- Wash plastics on the top rack of the dishwasher, farther from the heating element, or by hand. This will reduce wear and tear.
- Don’t allow your baby or young child to handle or chew on plastic electronics (the remote, your cell phone) because they may be treated with fire retardants (learn more about fire retardants and how to reduce your family’s exposure in a previous Healthy Home Tip).
- Wash children’s hands before they eat.
SOME SAFER ALTERNATIVES:
Where mouth contact is likely, stay away from plastics. There are a wide variety of safer alternatives available to meet your family’s needs. Some ideas are:
For the kids
- When bottle feeding infants, choose glass or BPA-free baby bottles with a clear silicone nipple. See our 1-page Guide to Baby-Safe Bottles and Formula for more on safe bottle feeding.
- Give your baby natural teethers like frozen washcloths or natural, uncoated wood. Plastic teethers could have harmful additives that leach when chewed.
- Look for toys made of natural materials, like wool, cotton, and uncoated wood.
In the kitchen
- Ceramic or glass food containers (like Pyrex) are better to store and heat your food and drink.
- When using an electric mixer, choose glass or Pyrex instead of plastic to avoid chipping bits of plastic into your food.
- Carry a glass or stainless steel water bottle without a plastic or “epoxy” lining.
- Lay natural flooring instead of vinyl.
- Use wooden cutting boards — but care for them properly to minimize bacteria.
- Cover food in the microwave with a paper towel instead of plastic wrap.
In the bathroom
- Pick a cotton shower curtain instead of vinyl.
- In the tub, play with cotton washcloths, finger puppets, wooden toy boats and lightweight aluminum cups instead of soft plastic bath toys and books.
Source: Environmental Working Group