There’s mounting evidence that it’s a health hazard.
Consider what you’ve eaten today. Perhaps you drank juice from a plastic bottle and coffee from a Keurig pod. For breakfast, you might have had fruit with yogurt. Your lunch salad may have been packed in a plastic container.
There’s a good chance much of what you ingested was packaged, stored, heated, lined, or served in plastic. And unfortunately, there’s mounting scientific evidence that these plastics are harming our health, from as early as our time in our mother’s womb.
Most of our food containers — from bottles to the linings in aluminum cans to plastic wraps and salad bins — are made using polycarbonate plastics, some of which have bioactive chemicals, like bisphenol A (BPA) and phthalates.
These man-made chemicals can leach from the containers or wrappings into the food and drinks they’re holding — especially when they’re heated. Research released earlier this year found that more than 90 percent of bottled water from the world’s leading brands was contaminated with microplastics, sparking a review of plastics in drinking water by the World Health Organization.
The main cause for concern is that these chemicals can mess with our hormones. Specifically, they can mimic hormones like estrogen, interfere with important hormone pathways in the thyroid gland, and inhibit the effects of testosterone.
Hormones are essential to the body’s ability to regulate itself; they function like little messengers, floating through the bloodstream and triggering different organs and systems to work together. Now imagine eating something that has a similar structure to your hormones and can act like hormones in your body. It can interfere with the delicate balance our bodies need to maintain. And that’s what ingesting even low doses of chemicals from plastic, over years, can do.
But because we’re exposed to these chemicals from many sources simultaneously, it’s tricky to measure their health impact. Even so, there’s compelling evidence that their “endocrine disrupting” capabilities have a range of disturbing health effects, from an increased risk of obesity and diabetes to problems with reproductive development.
“Whatever organ or system under development in the fetus or child during an exposure could be altered in subtle yet significant ways, even at low doses,” Tom Neltner, the chemicals policy director at the Environmental Defense Fund, told Vox.
That’s why a major pediatricians group, the American Academy of Pediatrics, in July called on families to limit their use of plastic food containers and demanded “urgently needed” oversight and reforms to the way these substances are regulated in the US.
But right now, that’s not happening. So, as pediatricians have suggested, you might want to rethink the plastics your food is stored in. Here’s what you need to know.
The complicated — and disturbing — science of plastics and animal health
The impact of the chemicals in plastics we commonly use for food storage have been studied in both animals and humans. And depending on the type of plastic polymer, the health effects vary from inconclusive to disturbing.
First, let’s walk through some of the animal research since it’s important here. (Researchers running animal experiments can zero in on which doses of which chemicals cause certain health effects, something they can’t do in human studies — more on that later.) And let’s start with the most feared plastic polymer: BPA.
In aquatic animals, which are important models for human disease, BPA disrupts hormones in a variety of ways: as an estrogen imitator, blocking other sex hormones, and disrupting the thyroid hormone system. Researchers have noted that BPS, a compound that is structurally very similar to BPA, has similar effects on aquatic animals, but using BPS means manufacturers can claim their products are BPA-free.