Society has a love-hate relationship with plastic. We sure use a lot of it, but even before an actor whispered "Plastics..." as a word of advice in the movie The Graduate, plastic often meant shoddy, imitation, and uncool. Ardent environmentalists tend to hate plastic. You know the issues there.
Now there are other concerns about plastics -- namely, that they are poisoning our food supply. These concerns stem from the fact that unsavory chemicals in some plastics can leach into food. Canada highlighted the issue by proposing a ban of plastics containing bisphenol-A, a compound with significant toxicity.
Recently, a study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association revealed even more startling findings about bisphenol-A.1 In a large population study of individuals between the ages of 18 and 74, it was found that people with higher levels of bisphenol-A in their urine also had higher rates of cardiovascular disease and diabetes.
This is especially worrisome because bisphenol-A is found in a plastic called polycarbonate used to make baby bottles. While the study authors were clear that this does not necessarily show a cause and effect relationship, it is well worth noting the risk.
The question of safety regarding polycarbonates raises a larger question -- just how safe are all the plastics that we come into regular contact with? Or phrased differently, what are the risks of packaging and serving food and beverages in plastic?
First, we have to realize that not all plastics are the same. Their chemical composition varies, so naturally their risks vary. Fortunately, a number stamped on the bottom of most plastic containers tells us which plastic the container is made of. That code is your key to evaluating the risk. Here's a quick run-down.
Number 1: Polyethylene Terephthalate (PET or PETE).
This is the lightweight, clear plastic commonly used in soda and water bottles. Many consider it a safe choice because it is not prone to leaching chemicals. However, an Italian study has shown some leaching into water that was stored in a PET bottle for over nine months.2 Another problem with PET is that it doesn't clean well. For this reason, never reuse PET bottles.
Number 2: High-Density Polyethylene (HDPE).
Milk jugs are usually HDPE. This translucent plastic is also used for shopping bags and the bottles that contain many household products such as cleaning supplies and shampoos. It has a low risk of leaching.
Number 3: Polyvinyl Chloride (PVC).
PVC is used to make packaging materials, including some food containers. It is also used for plastic wraps. Softeners added to PVC tend to migrate into food and raise safety concerns.
Number 4: Low-Density Polyethylene (LDPE).
This plastic is found in bread bags and squeezable bottles. Fortunately, studies to date have not shown any chemicals leaching from LDPE into food.
Number 5: Polypropylene (PP).
This is the stuff of fishing lines and surgical sutures, as well as syrup bottles and yogurt tubs. It appears to be toxin-free.
Number 6: Polystyrene (PS).
You'll recognize this as Styrofoam, so widely used in coffee cups and fast food containers. Unfortunately, it can leach styrene compounds into foods. Please don't reheat your coffee in a microwave if it's in Styrofoam. Better yet, find an alternative to the Styrofoam cup.
Number 7: Polycarbonate.
This is the clear, rigid, shatterproof plastic used for safety glasses (good) as well as backpacking water bottles and baby bottles (not so good). It contains bisphenol-A, a compound that can interfere with normal hormones and may be related to heart disease and diabetes. So that's the summary.
Once again, we have a situation where health advocates raise reasonable sounding concerns while the manufacturers claim their products are safe. Canada bans plastics with bisphenol-A while the FDA assures us the available evidence doesn't support a ban. What's a reasonable person to do?
First, let's acknowledge that plastics are extremely useful compounds. We wouldn't want to be without them. However, their overuse raises concern for both environmental and health reasons.
While the FDA reports that some chemicals do leach into food from plastics under some conditions, they claim the levels are very low and that current research shows no adverse effects at these levels. I'm not particularly interested in ingesting these chemicals even if no adverse effect has yet been proven.
I think a reasonable approach is to use plastic selectively. For example, I'm not about to go back to glass shampoo bottles. The combination of a glass bottle, wet, soapy hands, a tile floor, and bare feet just isn't good. But I do prefer my tomato juice bottled in glass.
Reduce plastic usage overall. Be especially selective about using plastic to hold food or drinks. The chemical levels may be low, but why would you want any if you had a choice?
Evaluate the situations where you use plastic and see if another material might be a better choice.
Note: Joseph F. McCaffrey, MD, FACS is a board-certified surgeon with extensive experience in alternative medicine, including certification as a HeartMath Trainer. His areas of expertise include mind-body interaction and cognitive restructuring. Dr. McCaffrey strives to help people attain their optimum level of vitality through attention to all aspects of wellness.
Commentary: Ghanaians tend to overuse plastics for hot food, chopbars, takeaways, microwaves, water, etc. We need to think carefully about the overall effects on our health and look at alternatives.
By Joseph McCaffrey, MD, FACS