The fight over the safety of plastics dates all the way back to 1987, when Theo Colborn, a 60-year-old grandmother with a PhD in zoology was hired to investigate wildlife health problems in the Great Lakes area. She began gathering research information on the animals.
Before long, cardboard boxes full of studies filled her tiny office. Animals with cancer, shrunken sexual organs, immune system suppression, plummeting fertility. Baby birds born with crossed beaks and missing eyes, and some that seemed healthy at birth but then withered away and died for no apparent reason.
The afflictions were perplexing and extremely varied, and they spanned across several species . . . but there were two common factors that all of them shared: the youngest were hit the hardest, and all of the animals’ symptoms could be traced back to problems within the endocrine system. Colborn suspected synthetic hormones from pesticides, plastics, and other “hand-me-down poisons.”
It took until 1996 – nearly another decade – for her to win over skeptics. And it wasn’t until that year that Congress passed a law requiring the EPA to screen 80,000 chemicals (most of which had never undergone any kind of testing whatsoever). They had four years to report back their findings.
It was around this time that the University of Missouri’s vom Saal, a garrulous biologist, started studying the effects of BPA. Found in everything from hospital blood bags to canned foods, it is used to make hard plastics more durable and flexible. He found that, even at small doses (25 times LOWER than the EPA’s safety threshold), male mice whose mothers were exposed ended up being born with enlarged prostates and low sperm counts.
More studies followed. And then some more. All of them turned up ailments caused by exposure to BPA. Plastic companies started working closely with the same group that defended Big Tobacco to allegedly recruit scientists that published studies claiming BPA was safe. Meanwhile, activists began working to get BPA marked as a harmful substance. They wanted it banned from use.
To this day, BPA is not a banned substance. It has been removed from infant products, and more and more “BPA-free” products are cropping up on the shelves of stores . . . but are we really any better off? Scientists give a strong “NO!”
Two chemicals still being used today, di-isononyl phthalate (DINP) and dii-isodecyl phthalate (DIDP) were introduced as “safer” alternatives to di-2-ethylhexylphlatate (DEHP), but researchers from NYU Langone Medical Center analyzed blood and urine samples from children in the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey. Results showed a “significant association” between DINP and DEP concentrations and high blood pressure. They also found an association between the presence of the two chemicals and increased insulin resistance, a precursor to diabetes.
“Our study adds further concern for the need to test chemicals for toxicity prior to their broad and widespread use, which is not required under current federal law [the 1976 Toxic Substances Control Act,” lead study author, Dr. Leonardo Trasande, told CBS News.
Michael Green, who runs the Oakland, California-based Center for Environmental Health, also did a bit of testing. His daughter would often cry for colorful, BPA-free plastic sippy cups over the stainless steel ones Green wanted her to use. Sometimes, he’d give in. But he was concerned. Were they really safer?
“When she wins . . . every time I worry about what are the health impacts of the chemicals leaching out of that sippy cup,” Green had said at an anniversary celebration for his organization in 2011.
And so he and his organization decided to test those sippy cups – 17 in all, purchased from stores like Target, Walmart, and Babies R Us. They were looking specifically for estrogen-like chemicals. More than a quarter of them came back positive, including Green’s daughter’s favorite.
The results mirrored another study from CertiChem, the company that tested those cups. In it, the authors reported that “almost all” commercially available plastics tested leached strong synthetic estrogens – even those that hadn’t been exposed to conditions known to unlock the harmful chemicals (heat from a microwave, UV rays from the sun, and dishwasher steam).
And these chemicals – as well as exposure to them – have been linked to so many conditions, it’s downright frightening. Pick a condition, any condition, and you’re likely to find it somehow linked back to estrogen disruption (what all of these chemicals have been found to cause). ADHD, cancer, fertility issues, and so much more.
But everything comes in plastic . . . so what’s a consumer to do?
The most important thing we can do is limit exposure to plastic as much as possible. Use glass or stainless steel containers instead of plastic ones. Avoid plastic wrap, etc. and use wax paper or aluminum foil instead. When something comes packaged in plastic, move it to a safe container at home. And never, ever microwave food in a plastic container. Most of all, keep talking. Keep sharing why plastic safety (and truth about the impact plastics have on our health) is important. Not just for our generation, but all future ones as well.
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