Is Even the 'New' Plastic Toxic?

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baby with plastic bottle
baby with plastic bottle

Photo by FamVeld/Thinkstock

Before I had kids, I made an effort to purge my kitchen of plastics. We switched to glass bowls, storage containers and cups — with leeway for a few things like picnicking items that come out during the summer. But once we had a baby, a plastic wave flooded us again. From bottles to sippy cups to bowls and plates and forks, it seemed like everything, everywhere was plastic.

This was post-2008, when news had spread that bisphenol A (BPA) — a plastic additive that was present in many products and that mimics the hormone estrogen — was potentially harmful. As in, this estrogenic activity (EA) was linked to issues such as early puberty, reproductive problems, obesity, heart disease, and cancer. Even The New York Times urged the FDA to ban BPA in baby bottles and cups, and the market responded. So I knew I had BPA-free stuff. But still… what was in this plastic? What did the little numbers on the bottom mean? Was it really dishwasher-safe? (Although I avoided microwaving, I really did want to believe that top-loading the plastic in the dishwasher was okay, because — ugh — hand-washing.)

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But my doubts about the plastic I did have weren’t just protective new-mom worries. In the post-BPA era, studies examining BPA-free products have consistently found that many plastics still exhibit EA that may be harmful to consumers — especially the newborn and little ones. “I try to avoid plastics altogether with my kids,” Katy Farber, founder of Non-Toxic Kids and author of “Eat Non-Toxic,” tells Yahoo Parenting. “Our regulatory system plays whack-a-mole with our health because after several years of tests and research, we learn a chemical is harmful. Then another chemical replaces it with little testing, taking years to study again while consumers face unknown health consequences.”

George Bittner — an author of one of the largest plastic studies in the post-BPA era, professor of Biology at the University of Texas, Austin, and Founder of CertiChem, the testing company that found more than 70 percent of 450 BPA-free products chosen at random showed EA — tells Yahoo Parenting that “there’s no easy answer.” In his own family’s kitchen, they use some plastics that have tested as safe in his lab, but regular consumers have no access to that kind of assessment. CertiChem’s sister company, PlastiPure, finds and formulates plastics that do not leach chemicals with detectable EA. “We have developed many EA-free consumer applications such as water bottles, baby bottles, plastic packaging, cosmetics, animal feed, food additives, and other products,” says PlastiPure CEO Michael Usey. “But we need product-manufacturer and consumer support for these products to be successfully launched.”

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In other words, the stink over BPA got big enough that the market responded, and Usey and Bittner think that type of thing has to happen again for another change to take place. Bittner recommends calling your favorite companies (or distributors like Whole Foods) and asking them if their products are testing as EA-free. “If consumers start to demand EA-free plastic, the market will supply it,” he says. “It’s now tough to find a BPA-based baby bottle, but the problem is the solutions that were given were market-based solutions rather than health-based solutions. Products with no BPA often substituted something else that has estrogenic activity.”

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And, by the way, heating and cooling of plastics, according to Farber, can increase the leaching of estrogenic chemicals. So putting your plastic in dishwashers, microwaves, and even freezers? Not a good idea. “I encourage folks to move their kitchens away from plastic,” Farber says, allowing that this is an investment. “Make the switch slowly by first changing the most used items to reduce exposure. For example, replace a plastic colander with a stainless steel one, replace any plastic utensils like spatulas, spoons, and cutting boards with other materials. High contact, high frequency items are great ones to start with.” She acknowledges that her own kitchen is “a work in progress,” with some plastic left, but mostly glass, ceramic, or stainless steel. “My daughter’s school lunch materials have no plastic,” she notes. “They use small stainless steel containers, and there are many great options out there.”

As for my family? We’re about to have baby number two, and she’s getting glass bottles.