Take a look at these photographs of albatross carcasses on Midway Atoll in the middle of the Pacific. These birds probably died of starvation since their stomachs were full of the plastic from the nearby collection of plastic pollution known commonly as the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. The albatross are unintentionally killing their young by feeding them plastic, mistaking the colorful bits for real food.
What does this have to do with YOU and ME? First, that is our waste out there. And secondly, we are also being killed by plastic, just like the albatross. Though we are not in acute danger of dying with bellies full of bottle caps and lighters, we are poisoning ourselves with plastic over time. The seminal book on the threats of plastic poisoning to our survival is called Our Stolen Future. Another excellent book about the chemical dangers lurking in everyday plastic products is aptly called Slow Death by Rubber Duck.
Your food is contaminated with toxic chemicals from plastics. These chemicals you are eating and drinking are changing you on a cellular level, altering your chromosomes in ways that can lead to infertility, obesity, and cancer. For women, estrogenic mimicking chemicals can cause breast cancer; for men, these chemicals cause prostrate cancer, reduced penis and testicle size and low testosterone. These threats are not hypothetical. They have been proven in the lab and demonstrated in real world studies.
One of the most important studies on BPA was a Rhesus Monkey study (Patricia Hunt, University of Washington). We share 95% of our DNA with Rhesus monkeys so when they are shown to have genetic damage from BPA, we can be pretty sure the same thing is happening to us. The study provides the strongest evidence yet that estrogen-like chemicals like BPA alter chromosomes,increasing the risk of birth defects and miscarriages. The study used levels of BPA similar to those to which humans are exposed though our food and drink and many consumer products including receipts. The study showed that cellular damage can hit three generations at once. BPA can affect a pregnant mother, her unborn fetus, and if that fetus is female, that fetus’s future offspring.
We have known that hormone mimicking chemicals wreck havoc on development and cause cancer for a long time. BPA was always known to be estrogenic. In fact, it was originally synthesized in 1936 as an estrogen replacement therapy, but since the 1940s it has been used primarily as a hardening agent in the manufacture of polycarbonate plastic. BPA is ubiquitous in consumer products. BPA alone generates 6 billion dollars in sales for the American petrochemical industry so the petrochemical industry has a huge stake in maintaining its market share, and it lobbies hard to keep BPA in our consumer products.
BPA can be found in the epoxy resin coating in the interior of modern metal food and aluminum soda cans, and in many other products, including the large polycarbonate water bottles Sparkletts and other water services deliver to homes and offices. More than 90 percent of Americans have detectable BPA in their urine. A study published in The Journal of the American Medical Association has found that high levels of urinary BPA are associated with an increased risk of childhood obesity. According to the study, BPA basically tricks your fat cells into taking in more fat — and can also trick your pancreas into producing more insulin than necessary, which can lead to Type 2 Diabetes.
The link between excess estrogen and cancer has been long established in medical research. Hormone replacement therapy for menopausal women has become disfavored for this reason.
“We know a women’s lifetime risk of breast cancer is directly linked to her lifetime exposure to estrogen — both natural and synthetic estrogen. ” observes Janet Nudelman, Director, Program and Policy for the Breast Cancer Fund.
Because their reproductive organs are still developing, fetuses, infants, and children are especially vulnerable to the synthetic estrogen BPA. This means pregnant women and children should reduce exposure to BPA. Reproductive-aged women should also be wary of BPA. “From animal models, it appears that the period right after fertilization and before a woman even knows she’s pregnant, is the most sensitive time in development,” says Professor Randy Jirtle, Department of Radiation Oncology, Duke University Medical Center, “so if women are even thinking of becoming pregnant, they should consider limiting their exposure to BPA.”
Dr. Frederick Vom Saal reports “There are now clear molecular mechanisms that explain how bisphenol A alters human and animal cells at concentrations at and below one part per trillion. And that’s over 1000 times below the levels that you virtually are certain to have in your body, according to the Centers for Disease Control. So if that doesn’t get you a little nervous, nothing should.”
The FDA recently banned BPA in baby bottles and children’s drinking cups but this is clearly not protective enough as the most damaging exposure can occur in utero through the mother’s exposure.
Phthalates used to soften and make flexible rigid plastics like PVC, are also endocrine disrupters. Just like BPA, the impacts from these endocrine disrupters is most dangerous when the fetus is developing, “In 2003, the CDC confirmed widespread contamination with the largest and most extensive U.S. survey of human chemical contamination to date, finding phthalates in virtually every person tested and the highest levels in children and women of reproductive age, demonstrating the potential for developmental effects on the fetus and children.”
In 2008, due to pressure from the Environmental Working Group (EWG) and others, the U.S. Congress banned six phthalates, not all, from children’s toys, adult toys and cosmetics. Legislators in Washington, Vermont, and California have also imposed restrictions on phthalates in children’s goods. But the problem has not gone away, as Phthalates are still quite common in consumer products in which they are not banned.
One of the worst paths for exposure to phthalates is through medical devices including plastic IV bags and tubing. Some of these devices are up to 80% DEHP, one of the most harmful phthalates. The impact on premature male infants is very threatening. In listing DEHP as one of the six most dangerous chemicals to human health, health expert Dr. Mercola states: DEHP contaminates the environment when it’s released from the factories that use it, which is why levels are higher in industrial areas, and near landfills and waste disposal sites. Like the notorious pesticide DDT, DEHP attaches strongly to the soil and stays there for a very long time, and it’s now being found in municipal drinking water supplies–and in the tissues of more and more people.
We are also exposed to DEHP when plastic materials in our homes and cars “outgas” into the air we breathe. That “new car smell” or “shower curtain smell” is the smell of DEHP.
Phthalates in our waterways are a route of exposure. According to Dr. Gina Solomon, senior scientist with the National Resources Defense Council (NRDC), phthalates have been found in more than 10 percent of streams sampled. Dr. Solomon urged Congress to address the problem of endocrine disruptors in drinking water in her testimony in February of 2010. According to Dr. Solomon:
“Multiple contaminants are turning up in our nation’s waterways, including in water millions of people rely on for drinking. Studies by the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) have revealed an unsavory mix of pharmaceuticals, steroid hormones, unregulated pesticides, flame retardants, rocket fuel chemicals, plasticizers, detergents, and stain repellants in both the surface water and the groundwater we rely on for drinking, and in our drinking water itself.”
The only phthalate that has a maximum contaminant level (MCL) set for it by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is DEHP. Unfortunately, the MCL for DEHP in drinking water was set way back in 1992, and it was not based on endocrine disrupting effects, but rather on gastrointestinal disturbances and vertigo, which have less serious biological ramifications than damage to your reproductive system. Last year there was a scandal regarding Taiwanese foods and beverages imported to the US that use DEHP as a clouding agent to make food and drink look milky. These companies replaced palm oil with DEHP because it has a longer shelf life in the products. It also has a longer shelf life in us.
Styrene a chemical found in polystyrene is a known animal carcinogen, possible human carcinogen, a hormone disrupting reproductive toxicant and it migrates easily into food or drink when foam containers are heated or come into contact with hot food, acids (like lemon or tomato juice) and fats or oils. A study by the United States Environmental Protection Agency conducted in 1982 found that 100% of Americans tested had Styrene in their fat tissue. Styrene is used as a starting material in the manufacture of a wide range of plastics – polystyrene foam (often referred to by Dow’s patent name Styrofoam), synthetic rubber, cooking utensils, plastic food wrap, PVC piping, insulated cups, and plastic bottles.
Recently, scientists at Goethe University in Frankfurt, Germanydiscovered that chemicals in PET plastics have the potential to interfere with estrogen and other reproductive hormones, just as BPA and phthalates do. Lead researcher Professor Martin Wagner says: “If you drink water from plastic bottles, you have a high probability of drinking estrogenic compounds.” Overall, Professor Wagner says, levels of these compounds in the water were surprisingly high and “having done all of these experiments, I started drinking tap water.”
How do our foods become contaminated with endocrine disrupting chemicals from plastic? In at least 4 known ways:
1. Leaching from plastic containers like plastic bottles, cans lined with a plastic film containing BPA, food in plastic containers designed to be microwaved or boiled, Styrofoam trays on which meat sits absorb the styrene, food heated in styrene or hot food served in styrene. We know that heat, acidity of the food or drink, and how long the food or drink is stored in the plastic all increase leaching.
2. Cooking with plastic such as plastic cooking tools, Teflon coated pots and pans and “microwavable plastics.”
3. Chemicals like BPA have become so prevalent in our consumer products that we consume them from our hands when we eat – BPA is in- everything from cash register receipts to paper products.
4. Plastic pollution has entered our food chain because our waste is accumulating in the ocean where it is eaten by sea creatures that we eat. Every day, disposable plastics (bottles, bags, packaging, utensils, etc.) are thrown away in huge quantities after one use, but they will last virtually forever. Globally we make 300 million tons of plastic waste each year. Disposable plastics are the largest component of ocean trash. According to leading expert Charles Moore, founder of Algalita Marine Research Foundation, while by EPA’s latest report, 8.2 percent of plastics get recycled in America, and about 40 percent go to landfill, around 50 percent go unaccounted for when they become waste and much of that waste ends up in our oceans. In America alone, that’s 25 billion pounds of plastic that most likely ends up in our oceans according to Anthony Andrady, a leading scientific expert in plastics.
Apart from the chemicals such as BPA and Phthalates that are additives to the petroleum base of plastic, plastics are oliophillic (attract oil), absorbing oily toxins from the surrounding water (such as PCBs, partially burned hydrocarbons, like oil drops from cars, and pesticides, like DDT) and accumulating the toxins in concentrations up to one million times greater than those in the surrounding seawater. Algalita MRF has documented that our plastic waste, and presumably the toxins it concentrates, have entered our food chain. This means we are poisoning fish, an important source of protein, with our toxic waste.
We are not powerless like the poor albatross that eat whatever they find in the sea. When we are educated about the dangers, we can make better choices to protect ourselves, and the albatross as well.
1. Skip bottled water and use your own glass or unlined stainless steel water bottles. Carefully choose glass or a stainless steel water bottle, and make sure it’s unlined — some metal water bottles contain a plastic liner that may contain BPA.
2. Keep a metal spoon and fork or some chopsticks with you in your backpack or purse and you won’t need the disposable plastic cutlery when you get food on the go.
3. Limit canned foods and beverages. The epoxy liners of metal food and beverage cans most likely contain BPA. Especially avoid canned foods that are acidic (e.g., tomatoes, citrus products, and acidic beverages, like colas) and canned alcoholic beverages, since acids and alcohols can exacerbate the leaching of BPA. Buy in glass whenever possible.
4. Skip the water cooler. Those hard plastic jugs that many companies use to provide their employees and customers with “pure” water are usually made with BPA. Drink filtered tap water instead.
5. Store foods in glass. Just be sure to wash the lids, if made of plastic, by hand and not in the dishwasher.
6. Use your own travel mug or ask for a real coffee cup. Heat helps toxins from leach into your beverage. Instead of accepting a polystyrene “to-go” cup for your hot beverage purchases, use a unlined stainless steel travel mug or ceramic coffee mug.
7. Avoid Cooking in Non-Stick Pans and Eating Foods Packaged with Non-Stick Plastics. Perfluorinated compounds (PFCs) are carcinogenic chemicals that make materials stain and stick resistant and persist in our bodies long after the packaging from such products like microwave popcorn or pizza is disposed or the non-stick pan is put away.
8. Minimize hard plastics in your kitchen. Hard plastic stirring spoons, pancake flippers, blenders, plastic cutting boards, measuring cups, and colanders regularly come into contact with both food and heat. Replace these items with wooden, metal, or glass alternatives.
9. Avoid using personal care products that contain plastic microbeads as exfoliants. These microbeads wash straight down your drain and into the rivers, lakes and oceans that contain our seafood and water supply. Join 5 Gyres Campaign against Plastic Microbeads in Personal care Products.
10. Bring your own containers to shop – First step is canvass bags so your single use plastic bags don’t add to the plastic pollution that is entering our food chain, but take it to the next level if you can. Bring your own containers for take out.
11. Join an advocacy group. Food & Water Watch and Environmental Working Group, Plastic Pollution Coalition and 5 Gyres will keep you up-to-date with current research and legislation regarding plastics and food and water safety.
Once you have knowledge, you have power to protect yourself, our resources and future generations. Start by protecting yourself and then, if you have the extra energy and passion to work toward protecting others, including children and animals who can’t protect themselves, you will become an advocate for policy change.
(This article originally appeared on 5 Gyres. It has been reprinted here with permission.)