This article was originally written for The Dragontree
I’ll never forget my eighth grade science teacher, Bill Andrake. He was a post-hippie with so much passion for science and the environment that it was sometimes scary. More than once, he dumped a garbage can on the floor and sifted through the trash while lambasting us for throwing away all kinds of things that were recyclable. Mind you, this was the 1980s. None of us had any idea how or where to recycle something.
One day, he took us on a walk down to the beach, and the moment we got to the sand, he bent over, picked something up, and held it high for us to see. It looked very familiar, but it didn’t know what it was. Well, I kind of knew what it was – it was one of those things that were always scattered all over the beach, which I used to decorate my sand castles. It vaguely resembled a plastic hotdog. I just didn’t know what other people used them for.
“Behold,” he shouted, “the common beach whistle!” Hmm. I had certainly never used one as a whistle. “Also known as a plastic tampon applicator!” That didn’t clarify anything. I was thirteen years old. The only word that made sense to me in “plastic tampon applicator” was “plastic.”
He went on to express his outrage over the fact that the coast was littered with these things. Immediately after school I did some research. Since there was no internet and my friends were as clueless as I was, I had to ask my sisters. Needless to say, my mind was blown, I looked at girls differently after that, and I stopped putting those things on my sand castles. The “plastics don’t biodegrade” message was lost on me because I was too busy trying to wrap my head around menstruation.
Seven years later, I was a botany major working for a professor in the agriculture department at UMass who had an interest in bioremediation. That’s the use of living organisms – mostly plants and bacteria – to process hazardous materials in order to make them less toxic. Sewage treatment companies dumped enormous piles of semi-processed sludge at the UMass farm, and my job was to incorporate it, in varying amounts, into the soil, and then see what happened to it.
The problem with trying to grow plants in pure human waste is that it’s just too dense and nitrogen-rich for roots to survive in. So one company had the bright idea of aerating the material by mixing it with bits of plastic from chopped up cigarette lighters, food containers, and good old beach whistles. At the time (mind you, this was the early 1990s) plastic was regarded as inert – even by my professor, who taught organic farming. Inert means completely chemically inactive. Inert things don’t react or interact in any way with anything.
Now, unless the university dredged those fields, there’s still a whole lot of plastic there, in what was once prime, uncontaminated river valley soil. Plastic’s persistence is part of why we thought it was inert. If the sun can shine on it and the rain can pour on it, and it doesn’t seem to change or break down, it seems reasonable, in a totally unscientific way, to conclude that it’s an inert substance.
Just a few years after I planted all that plastic, a genetics researcher named Patricia Hunt began to have doubts about plastic’s inertness. She was doing fertility studies on mice, and was shocked to find that 40 percent of the eggs of her control group – which should have been normal, healthy mice – were defective. Exhaustive detective work into what could be messing with her mice led to the discovery that they had been exposed to a plastic constituent called bisphenol A (BPA) from their cages and water bottles. Since then, Hunt’s research has confirmed the link between BPA and impaired fertility. In a recent study, she exposed pregnant mice briefly to BPA at the time that their fetuses were producing reproductive organs. When the female offspring reached adulthood, 40 percent of their eggs were defective.
In the past decade, scientists have investigated interactions between animals and an assortment of plastics, and their results seem to indicate that many plastics can pose health risks for humans. The ability of some plastics to cause disruption to our endocrine (hormone) system is probably the most critical, since this disruption may cause infertility, weight gain, immune impairment, and certain cancers. Out of all the plastic constituents, BPA’s role in endocrine disruption is the clearest. As early as the 1930s, it was known to affect human estrogen receptors and was briefly considered as an estrogen replacement drug. Women’s lifetime exposure to estrogen is directly correlated with their risk of breast cancer.
I understand that a life without plastics is impossible, or at least highly unrealistic, today. But I urge you to reduce your exposure to them to whatever degree is practical for you. Just in my 15 years of medical practice, I have seen an increasing incidence of impaired fertility among both men and women.
So, here are some conservative recommendations. First, know your sources of exposure. BPA is used to line virtually all metal food and drink cans, and Centers for Disease Control (CDC) testing in 2003-04 found the chemical in 93% of Americans age 6 and over. Electronic goods, plastic food packaging and storage containers, carpet, upholstery, synthetic clothing, building materials, and cash register receipts are some of our main sources of exposure to plastics through skin contact, consumption, and inhalation.
Heating plastic or plastic-lined containers tends to increase leaching of plastics into foods, so always heat your food in a glass, stainless steel , cast iron, or ceramic container. If you must buy canned foods, try to get them in BPA-free cans. (Unfortunately, we don’t yet know if the BPA substitutes these companies are using to line cans are any safer; one of them – BPS [bisphenol S] – appears to have a similar toxicity) Acidic foods (sauces and soups containing tomatoes, citrus drinks, all carbonated beverages, etc.) seem to promote breakdown of plastic containers and linings, causing them to enter the food, so these are the most important foods to buy and store in glass or BPA-free steel. Replace your plastic Tupperware containers with glass ones (plastic lids are okay, if removed for reheating, though silicone is better).
BPA has a particular affinity for the placenta, so women who are pregnant should be more scrupulous about reducing contact with it. BPA has been removed from most baby supplies in recent years, but it’s still a good idea to limit children’s exposure to plastics of all kinds. Glass, ceramic, and steel containers, wooden toys, and pure cotton clothing are all easy to find.
If you get new carpet, a new couch, new shower curtain, new mattress, new flooring, or a large appliance – anything that smells like chemicals when you unpack it – open the windows for several days to allow some of the fumes to clear, and try not to hang out in that room as much until the smell has cleared. Masking the smell with air freshener or scented candles isn’t helping.
Skin exposure is probably less of an issue than consumption and inhalation, but I still think it’s worth trying to limit this, especially in children. The tricky part is that we have so many cool new fabrics made of plastics. If you can’t resist them, perhaps limit their use directly against your skin and in circumstances where your pores will be wide open, such as an exercise or yoga class. Just think how much plastic outgas you’re inhaling from a room full of yoga mats and stretchy synthetic clothing in your hundred degree yoga class!
So, by all means, reduce your exposure to plastics. But don’t freak out.
Dr. Peter Borten
P.S. There are many online resources on plastics that go into greater depth than I have. One good article is HERE.
Copyright 2017 by Peter Borten