When it Comes to Plastics, Nothing is Really "Free"
When it comes to food, labels like “USDA Organic,” “gluten-free,” or “trans-fat free” can be slippery.
The organic and natural foods industry is a big business. And it’s easy to trick consumers into thinking that the contents of any given box or bag are good for you, simply because they don’t feature a particular vilified additive or ingredient.
Unfortunately, this unique brand of deception isn’t limited to processed food. And the new crop of “BPA-free” and “pthalate-free” products flooding the market in recent years are a perfect example of that fact.
Now, I’m not saying that having fewer industrial chemicals in our everyday lives isn’t a good thing. Quite the opposite, in fact.
The endocrine-disrupting activity of bisphenol A (BPA) is well known by now. This chemical is a famous estrogen-mimicker. And animal research has linked BPA exposure to genital deformities, premature puberty, and sperm degredation — just to name a few disturbing trends.1
But then you have pthalates. These chemicals are widespread in both plastics and personal care products. And research shows that they may pose an even bigger threat to your hormone levels than BPA.
Pthalates have come under fire for all sorts of hormonal side effects — including poor semen quality and abdominal obesity, for example.2-3 More recently, research has linked pthalate exposure to testosterone reductions as large as 30% in men, women, and even young children.4
So, yes... avoiding them is essential.
The problem here is that all those products advertised as free of BPA and pthalates aren’t free of industrial chemicals altogether. They simply contain different ones. And as recent research shows, these replacements are every bit as dangerous.
Take DEHP, for example. Manufacturers began phasing out this chemical — a pthalate used to make rigid plastics more flexible, and which the EPA has labeled as a probable human carcinogen5 — almost 10 years ago.
But according to two new studies — one featured in the journal Hypertension, another in the Journal of Clinical Endocrinology — this move came with a whole new set of health consequences. Turns out, DINP and DIDP — two DEHP replacement chemicals — may play a role in the development of high blood pressure and insulin resistance in children and adolescents.6-7
We’re talking about lethal effects that start as early as childhood. And this is just what we know right now.
If you’ve been paying attention, then you know this isn’t the first news of its kind. In fact, research on bisphenol S (BPS) — BPA’s replacement du jour — has revealed estrogen-mimicking effects comparable to its predecessor.8-9 And it’s exposed some pretty nasty neurological effects in lab animals, too.10
The bottom line? Plastic is big business. And no matter what that label says, it’s pretty much always going to be bad for you — no way around it.
That said, I also realize that there’s really no way around plastic in this day and age. The best anyone living in today’s world can do is minimize exposure. And the good news is that just a few simple safeguards can make a dramatic difference in that department.
Obviously, your best bet is to avoid cooking with, eating off of, storing food in, or drinking out of plastic altogether. If you do have any plastic in your kitchen, at least make sure that the recycling number isn’t a 3, 6, or 7. (Plastics labeled with a 7 in particular are sure to contain BPA.)
And whatever you do, keep anything plastic out of the microwave. And the dishwasher, while you’re at it.
One 2011 study found that 70% of plastic samples showed significant estrogenic activity — even ones labeled “BPA free.” But after exposure to high temperatures in the microwave or dishwasher, that proportion rocketed to 95%.11
In fact, any wear and tear is going to increase the amount of harmful chemicals that leach out of plasticware. So at a very minimum, toss the old stuff. And replace it with glass or stainless steel drinkware, dinnerware, and storage containers instead.
You should avoid packaged food when you can — especially if it’s stored in plastic or cans (which are often lined with BPA). And this includes bottled water, which is also a huge no-no, obviously. Buy a good filter and stick with tap water.
But if you have to drink water out of a plastic bottle — and let’s be real, it’s hard to avoid in some situations — once again, at least keep it out of the heat. If a bottle of water has been sitting in your car in the summer, consider it undrinkable... and toss it in the recycling bin.
As far as I’m concerned, that’s the only place plastics really belong anyway.
Stay tuned and stay well,
Geo Espinosa, N.D., L.Ac, C.N.S., is a renowned naturopathic doctor recognized as an authority in integrative management of male and urological conditions. Dr. Geo is the founder and director of the Integrative Urology Center at New York University Langone Medical Center (NYULMC), a center of excellence in research and integrative treatments for urological conditions.
1. Fellman, Bruce. “The Problem With Plastics.” The Journal of the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies. Fall 2009.
2. Wirth JJ, et al. Syst Biol Reprod Med. 2008 May-Jun;54(3):143-54.
3. University of Rochester Medical Center. "Obesity In Men Linked To Common Chemical Found In Plastic And Soap." Science Daily, 15 March 2007.
4. Meeker JD, et al. J Clin Endocrinol Metab. 2014 Nov;99(11):4346-52.
6. Trasande L, et al. Hypertension. 2015 Aug;66(2):301-8.
7. Attina TM, et al. J Clin Endocrinol Metab. 2015 Jul;100(7):2640-50.
8. Grignard E, et al. Toxicol In Vitro. 2012 Aug;26(5):727-31.
9. Bittner GD, et al. Environ Health. 2014 May 28;13(1):41.
10. Endocrine Society. "BPA Substitute as bad as BPA? Exposure to BPA substitute causes hyperactivity and brain changes in fish." ScienceDaily, 23 June 2014.
11. Yang CZ, et al. Environ Health Perspect. 2011 Jul;119(7):989-96.