Plastic-Free Lives: Sensible or Unnecessary?

Over the past few years, the public has grown more concerned about chemicals in plastics and food packaging. Some consumers have gone to the point of eliminating plastic from their lives, substituting it with glass, ceramic, Meat packagingterracotta, and paper.

Chemicals of most concern are bisphenol A (BPA) and phthalates, both of which have been linked to infertility and birth defects. Whether to ban the substances from products is a major debate, with some evidence indicating that the substances are disruptive, while other studies indicate their levels in the environment are well below acceptable health-effects thresholds.

For example, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control found in 2004 that BPA, which is often used in tough polycarbonate products and epoxy resins that line tin cans, is prevalent, present in 93% of urine samples taken from 2,517 people, reports Steve Boggan in the Daily Mail. Also, the U.S. National Toxicology Program concluded in 2008 that there were concerns about BPA’s effects in the brain, behavior, and prostate gland development in fetuses, infants, and children.

BPA and phthalates, which are used to soften plastic, mimic estrogen. Scientists say that these chemicals, therefore, are endocrine disruptors, affecting sexual development, which leads to breast, prostate, and testicular cancer, reduced levels of fertility, and undescended testes. But not all studies have found evidence of this conclusion.

Professor Richard Sharpe of the Medical Research Council’s Centre for Reproductive Health (U.K.) says that there are real concerns but much of the damning research could not be verified by other scientists. “Replicability is the guardian of scientific integrity,” he says. “But some of the most critical experiments simply could not be repeated.”

Regarding phthalates, there are 25 different kinds and several are banned in children’s toys in the European Union and for certain types of food packaging. Boggan explains some of the results of testing on phthalates:

Laboratory tests on rats and mice have found that some male offspring of females exposed to phthalates suffered birth defects and sexual development problems. But when larger mammals were tested, the results could not be duplicated.

Meanwhile, Studies in Denmark and Israel have found that male fertility rates have fallen by half and rates of testicular cancer have soared since the use of plastics became widespread after World War II. Is there a link between the two or could it just be coincidence?

Research on BPA alone, over the past few decades, has cost millions of dollars and resulted in the publication of more than 5,000 papers. Yet scientists are still arguing over whether the chemical is harmful or not. To answer the above question, one thing can be sure: Research and more testing of chemicals in plastics will continue for years to come.

Source: “Poisoned by Plastic: Chemicals in Water Bottles and Food Packaging Have Been Linked to Infertility and Birth Defects. Scaremongering, or the Truth?Daily Mail, 6/10/12
Image by Mattes, used under its Creative Commons license.