Marios Dimopoulos Clinical Nutritionist, Author, Fellow of the American Council of the Applied Clinical Nutrition

Σάββατο, 3 Μαΐου 2014

Disturbing Facts about Plastic

Take a quick look around you and inventory all the plastic products you see. Your computer monitor and keyboard, your pens, even the carpet under your feet—all are made possible by plastic. The American Chemistry Council likes to throw out its old adage, "Plastic makes it possible." And in a culture ruled by convenience products and cheap, disposable goods, plastic does. But at what cost?

But here's one fact about plastic that the industry likes to deny: Plastic could be making us fat and sick. And that bothers Beth Terry. Terry set out five years ago to rid her life of cheap, disposable, and often unrecyclable, plastic garbage after reading an article in Men's Health magazine (also published by Rodale) that included a picture of a dead albatross that had starved because it had filled its belly with plastic garbage instead of food. But once she started looking, she began to uncover a lot of other disturbing plastic facts, which she's compiled in a new book, Plastic-Free: How I Kicked the Plastic Habit and How You Can Too (Skyhorse, 2012). Here's some of what she learned, and what we can all do to make plastic's problems go away.

1. We don't know everything that's in plastic—and neither do food companies. "The most shocking thing about plastic is how much we as consumers don't know about what is in the plastic products that we buy," Terry says. She's referring to more than just the raw materials. Plastics may be made from oil or natural gas, but once they get to a plastics producer, dozens of chemicals are added to make them rigid, heat resistant, colored, clear, UV resistant, soft, pliable—for just about any feature a plastics manufacturer wants, there's an additional chemical that can giveit to them. And all those mixtures are protected as trade secrets, Terry adds, that not even food manufacturers can find out. She says that food companies who want to know what's in the packaging they're using often face the same firewall that consumers face.

2. Plastic isn't good for vegetarians. Of the thousands of possible chemicals added to plastics, some are known to be toxic—for instance, the neurotoxin lead and the carcinogen cadmium are frequently added to vinyl products to protect them from UV damage—and others have a growing body of research suggesting they're not good for you, such as that linking the hormone disruptor bisphenol A to everything from heart disease to childhood behavioral problems. And some are just gross. Like chicken fat. Terry says that plastic bag manufacturers sometimes add chicken fat to the exterior of plastic bags to make them more slippery. Animal fats are also added to other plastic products to prevent them from sticking to metal machinery. So now vegetarians have one more reason to bring their own reusable bags and containers.

3. It causes acne. At least, it does in cats and dogs. Many vets warn pet owners to feed cats and dogs out of glass, ceramic, or stainless steel bowls because porous plastic bowls allow bacteria to breed and multiply, causing an acne-like rash on a pet's chin. The material's porous nature is yet another reason that plastic manufacturers add still more chemicals, Terry says. Antibacterial chemicals like triclosan, which has been linked to an increase in allergies, is a registered pesticide, and is suspected of contributing to antibiotic resistant diseases like MRSA, are added to plastics all the time. Sometimes they're labeled—you'll often find antibacterial chemicals advertised on packaging for cutting boards and sponges or mildew-resistant shower curtains—but often they're not, which means you have no way of knowing so you can avoid them.

4. Plastic kills more than just birds and sea turtles. Images of sea turtles choking on plastic and, in the case of Terry's inspiration, dead birds with stomachs filled with plastic debris are the poster children of sorts for advocates trying to reform recycling laws and discourage people from buying so much disposable plastic. But in her book, Terry writes that so many cows in India have died from ingesting plastic that many states in the nation have banned plastic bags altogether as a way to avoid it. In the United Arab Emirates, she adds, veterinarians have seen goats, camels, sheep, and other endangered desert animals dead because they've ingested plastic garbage.

5. Recycling is only a semi-perfect solution. "I don't want people to stop recycling, because we have to do something with the plastic we end up with," Terry says. But, she adds, "it's not the answer to our plastic problem." Most plastic from the U.S. gets shipped to China to be recycled, she says, where it's melted down in plants that pollute the local air and water, manned by people who work with little to no protective gear. What's more, recycled plastic is "downcycled," that is, a plastic bottle isn't turned back into a plastic bottle. It's recycled into carpeting or fleece for clothing or some other product that often isn't or can't be recycled at the end of its useful life. "It's really just slowing down [plastic's] progress to the landfill."

All this shouldn't leave you depressed. Through years of dedication, Terry has managed to reduce her plastic waste to one plastic shopping bag's worth each year. She admits that isn't doable or practical for everyone. But here's what is:
• BYOB…and C. "The first thing that I did was to just stop taking grocery bags at the store. I just decided I wasn't going to take them anymore," she says. And to keep herself from forgetting her bags, she'd make herself carry out by hand what she bought whenever she did forget them—and if she couldn’t carry it, she wouldn't buy it. Once you get into that habit, start bringing your own containers with you, as well, to fill from bulk bins and use at the meat counter. (Swap out your reusable plastic food containers for those made from glass or stainless steel to avoid iffy chemicals and funky animal fats.)

• Ask yourself, "Can I make this?" If you can't find something you want in the bulk bins or in a plastic-free glass or paper package, try making it at home. Terry says she stumbled upon a recipe for homemade chocolate syrup when she couldn't find any that weren't packaged in plastic bottles. "I absolutely love making it now, and I probably wouldn't have thought to do it if I wasn't trying to avoid plastic," she says. A few other surprisingly simple ideas from our Nickel Pincher columnist: homemade yogurt, mayo, salad dressings, chips, and energy bars.
• Hit up the farmer's markets. In addition to offering up plastic-packaging-free produce that you can carry in your own reusable bags, farmer's markets have another weird benefit: no produce stickers. Those little stickers that you probably give little thought to are actually plastic, and they get washed down your drain and into your water treatment plant where they gum up equipment, Terry writes. If they make it through, they wind up in waterways and get ingested by animals.
For more tips on going plastic-free forever, follow Beth Terry on her blog,, and check out our 5 Strategies for a Plastic-Free Life.

It used to be that people who just couldn't break the plastic habit to go plastic-free could at least rely on certain types of plastics, usually those labeled #2, #4, or #5 in the triangle of arrows on the bottom, because those plastics weren't made using bisphenol A or phthalates, the two chemicals in plastic that are known to interfere with the way your body produces and handles estrogen. But a study published in the journal Environmental Health Perspectives concludes that there really are no "safe" plastics, thanks to all the chemicals, additives, and processing aids that go into making plastic products. In a test of nearly 500 chemical containers, the authors discovered that nearly all exhibited some kind of estrogenic activity.
THE DETAILS: The authors purchased 455 plastic products designed to hold food (including plastic bags and baby bottles) that were made from all different types of plastic. Some of the plastics tested, such as high-density polyethylene (#2 in the recycling triangle) and polypropylene (#5 in the recycling triangle), are considered safer plastics because, prior to this study, they hadn't been shown to leach chemicals. Some of the other plastics, such as corn-based plastics and newer so-called "BPA-free" plastic resins, were also tested. All the plastics were filled with substances mimicking food and then subjected to three types of stress—microwave heating, moist heat similar to what they might be exposed to in a dishwasher, and UV light (simulating a water bottle left in a car during the day or a baby bottle being subjected to UV sterilization).
The researchers were able to measure some type of estrogenic chemical leaching from roughly 95 percent of all the plastics tested, including 100 percent of the food wraps and 98 percent of the plastic bags. Even when the plastics were unstressed and just exposed to various solutions, they still leached estrogenic chemicals. And some of the baby and water bottles labeled "BPA free" showed greater estrogenic activity than polycarbonate bottles, which are made from BPA. When they were subjected to stress, the amount of leaching largely depended on what was in the packaging. For instance, some of the highest levels of leaching occurred in plastics containing saline solution when they were put in the microwave; saline is intended to mimic vegetables or other foods with a high water content. But baby bottles containing ethanol, which is intended to mimic milk and other foods with a higher fat content, leached more when exposed to UV light than they did when they contained a saline solution.
WHAT IT MEANS: There really aren't any "safer" plastics, and it's hard to predict which ones will leach estrogenic chemicals into your food. As this study shows, different plastics containing different types of foods will leach chemicals at different levels. That's largely because there are so many steps and additives in the plastic-making process, says George Bittner, PhD, professor of biology at the University of Texas in Austin and lead author of the study. "A plastic item can subsist of anywhere from five to 20 chemicals, some of which are additives, which are incorporated within the plastic polymer but not bound to the structure," he says. Both the materials that make up the plastic resin and the additives can leach out of plastics, says Bittner, who's also the CEO of CertiChem, the lab that tested the plastics in this study, and a consultant for PlastiPure, a company that works with plastic manufacturers to produce estrogenic-chemical-free plastics. You also have mold-release agents and colorants that are used to make or decorate the plastics, adds Mike Usey, CEO of PlastiPure, and those colorants tend to be highly estrogenic.
"We're not testing in a way that the industry has traditionally done this," Usey says. "We're not identifying specific chemicals, finding those, and then substituting another chemical. We're looking at the entire product." And that's where the industry has largely failed at keeping estrogenic chemicals out of products. He uses the example of baby bottles, which were once commonly made with BPA-based polycarbonate plastics. After parents started to demand BPA-free bottles, the industry switched to two primary alternatives, PETG and PES—hard, clear plastics that do not contain BPA. However, "we've done quite a few tests, and the level of estrogenic activity that we have found under certain conditions, especially under UV light, has been higher than with polycarbonate," Usey says. And, he adds, it's hard to pinpoint the source of the estrogenic activity without knowing the exact makeup of the plastic and any processing aids, additives, or colorants used in the final product. "Since the health effects [of estrogenic chemicals] occur at such a low level, it doesn’t take much for something to be highly estrogenic," he adds.
Usey and Bittner don't think people should eliminate plastics from their lives entirely. "I think plastics are great—they just need to be made safer," Usey says. Bittner adds, "Consumers should request from the stores where they buy plastics that those stores start supplying them with plastics that are free of estrogenic activity."
Until that happens, you can purge your home of estrogenic chemicals by adopting a plastic-free life:
• Revamp your food storage. Glass, ceramic, and stainless steel are great food-storage materials that can go from stove to fridge to freezer easily.
• Buy less processed food. Most processed foods in the grocery store come in some form of plastic packaging. Buying fresh vegetables and ingredients in bulk (which you can package in your own plastic-free containers) will help you avoid most of it.
• BYO… You may already carry a reusable mug and reusable shopping bags to eliminate some plastics, but take the next step and start carrying reusable produce bags, too, when you shop. Like other forms of plastic, those flimsy plastic produce bags can leach hormone-disrupting chemicals into your berries and broccoli, and they're hard to recycle once they're contaminated with food. You can find regular and organic cotton produce bags online at

Medications and supplements are supposed to make us feel better, and the main ingredients often do. But researchers are finding that certain plastic additives designed to release the ingredients into our systems more slowly could actually be making us sick.
In a recent study published in the journal Environmental Health Perspectives, U.S. researchers sampled a small portion of pills on the market—medicines for conditions ranging from acid reflux, infections, and inflammation to ulcerative colitis and high blood pressure, among others—and found that 10 to 20 percent contained two types of plasticizing chemicals tied to lifelong health problems. These plastic chemicals, known as phthalates, are often found in vinyl flooring and shower curtains, cleaning products, nail polish, perfumes, and fragranced personal care products, insecticides, and food packaging.
In studies, scientists have found a link between phthalate exposure and damage to the developing male reproductive system, birth defects, infertility, stunted growth, and low IQs. Now, add meds to the list. "Ingesting drugs and supplements containing phthalates may significantly add to the total burden of exposure," says pharmacist and lead author of the study, Kathy Kelley, MPH, RPh, research pharmacist at Boston University. "If possible, it may help to avoid exposure when there are alternatives."
Although scientists are still trying to figure out the definitive effects phthalates have on human health, Kelley cautions that based on the available studies, it may be important for pregnant women and children to avoid additional exposure to these chemicals if possible.
While that may not always be possible, finding safer alternatives may just be a question away. "Many of the medications and supplements that we identified as containing phthalates are available in multiple formulations, some of which may be "phthalate free," explains Kelley. That means you can ask your pharmacist or healthcare professional about alternatives.
Learn the top pharmacy and label-reading tricks so you can start avoiding these harmful pill coatings today!
Medicines designed to break down more slowly for maximum absorption may contain phthalates, so be wary of labels containing claims like "enteric coated," "time release," "film coated," or "safety coated," Kelley warns.
Some prescription medicines have label information available online at the company or product websites. "It can be challenging to obtain this information on all drugs, but a patient can ask their pharmacist to check the complete product label that comes with the medication they have been given," suggests Kelley.
For over-the-counter medicines, you can read the drug facts panel under "inactive ingredients." In both cases, you're looking to avoid products where a word containing "phthalate" winds up on the label. Diethyl phthalate and dibutyl phthalates are most linked to health problems, while phthalate polymers like hypromellose phthalate, cellulose acetate phthalate, and polyvinyl acetate phthalate are believed to be more benign because the body doesn't readily absorb them. "However, sometimes these are combined with a phthalate plasticizer, such as diethyl phthalate, so you still need to get the most complete information about the product," says Kelley.
As with medicine, watch out for ingredient names like "aqueous enteric coating," and labeling terms like "enteric coating" and "time release" when you're dealing with supplements. Supplement regulations are more lax, though, so you may need to contact the manufacturer or distributor for the most complete ingredients information.
To reduce the amount of phthalates you're exposed to in other ways, use these tips:
1. Find safer personal care products. Anything that lists "fragrance" or "parfum" on the ingredients label potentially contains phthalates. To rate your products' safety and to find safer sources, visit Environmental Working Group's Cosmetics Database.
2. Veto vinyl. Avoid vinyl shower curtains and other soft plastics—they likely are laced with phthalates. Safer shower curtain options include cotton and hemp.
3. Avoid fake fragrances elsewhere, as well. Forgo chemical air fresheners and scented candles. (Beeswax candles are a safer option.) In the laundry department, choose unscented, plant-based products whenever possible. Save money and your healthy by making your own green cleaning products.


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