Wednesday, May 21, 2008

You Are What You Eat

There is documented evidence on the detriment discarded plastic has on our environment. While I am not anti-plastic, I use some sort of plastic product every day, I have a love/hate relationship with plastic. I love the convenience that plastic affords busy moms and the many advances in modern medicine that would not have been accomplished without the use of plastic. What I hate about plastic is that I don't get to choose which plastics I expose to myself and my family and I have little control over what way those plastics come into our home.

In my college education to become a Biologist, I took almost 3 years of Chemistry, Biology, Zoology and Botany. Additionally, I worked seven years for B Braun Medical, a medical supply company that manufactures IV drugs and delivery systems. B Braun products are known in the medical field as superior for Intra-Veinous (IV) drug and blood delivery systems mainly because B Braun IV products do not contain plasticizers like DEHP in the PVC from which the IV products are made. PVC is mostly encountered in its rigid state as white tubes that plumbers use to get water into your house from the street. PVC is perfectly safe for water use in this hardened state. What most people don't know is that IV products are made from PVC then a plasticizer is added to make it flexible. The more pliable the plastic, the more plasticizers it contains. The problem health care providers have with using plastic containing DEHP for IV fluid containers and delivery systems is that plasticizers have been proven to leach into whatever product is contained in the plastic.

The medical industry has accepted the seriousness of exposure to plasticizers for patients in a compromised state of health (such as dialysis, surgery, ICU, etc) so they are willing to purchase a more expensive plastic product to ensure harmful plasticizers are not transfered to patients. But what about the massive amounts found in the every day lives of the "healthy" public? What about the exposure to small children whose bodies are not fully developed? What about the elderly or those in poor health?

Bisphenol A (BPA) is found in the plastic lining of cans containing soups, beans and soft drinks (organics too), reusable plastic water bottles and plastic baby bottles. Plastic manufacturers do not deny that BPA leaches into canned foods and beverages and is routinely ingested by humans. BPA is controversial because in the bodies of tested laboratory animals it mimics estrogen and thus induces hormonal responses. This means BPA is an estrogen receptor agonist and can act like the body's own hormones leading to similar physiological effects on the body such as weight gain, breast growth, possibly cancer in both male and female subjects. Studies by the CDC found BPA in the urine of 95% of adults sampled in 1988-1994 and in 93% of children and adults tested in 2003-04. Almost all exposure is through diet, and infants fed with liquid formula are among the most exposed through the plastic bottles used to feed babies the formula.

DEHP is used in medical IV supplies (with the exception of B Braun Medical products) as well as food packaging materials and some plastic children's toys like teething rings. DEHP has been shown to cause liver tumors in both rats and mice receiving DEHP in their diet throughout their entire life span. Based on the results of these cancer studies, the National Toxicology Program has classified DEHP as a substance that may reasonably be anticipated to be a carcinogen.

It may seem and impossible task to completely remove plastic from your every day life if you live in a typical American home. As the person who brings all the food and drink into the house from the market, I have a huge responsibility to my family for the safety of these products. Here are some ways I've been able to lessen my dependance on plastic in our home.

1. We use glass containers for storage of leftovers. Most people have something already in their fridge or pantry in a glass jar. Just wash well it when you're done (sterilizing is a good idea) and put that leftover spaghetti in there! Almost all food in the supermarkets are packaged in plastic, so some contact is unavoidable but there are ways to protect yourself from the most harmful of plastics. Plastic items are marked with a recycling identification code (the number surrounded by chasing arrows), which stands for:

1—polyethyelene terephthalate (PETE)
2—high-density polyethylene (HDPE)
3—vinyl, polyvinyl chloride (PVC)
4—low-density polyethylene (LDPE)
5—polypropylene (PP)
6—polystyrene (PS)
7—other (includes polycarbonate, acrylic, polylactic acid, fiberglass)

If you must use plastic for food storage (and purchases) be sure to choose 1, 2, 4 and 5. Learn to recognize and then avoid numbers 3 and 7 for food usage as they could be BPA leaching plastics. Beware of plastic lids for your glass containers... if they are coded 7, be sure the lid does not come in contact with the food.

2. I stopped using plastic baggies to store food. You can actually taste the plasticizers in your food if you leave it in a baggie for too long (that's scary). Use aluminum foil, wax paper, or small paper bags.

3. I NEVER microwave food in a plastic container or cover it with plastic wrap. The waves that heat food can knock DEHA plastic molecules from the container into your food. Put the food on a plate and then put a paper towel over it before microwaving your lunch.
Authors disclaimer: That's not my microwave in the picture!

4. We will stop purchasing bottled water. I've committed to invest in stainless steel bottles for our family to reuse for water bottles from now on. Plastic water bottles as well as yogurt, whipped topping, and margarine tub containers are not designed for reuse. Cleaning disposable plastics at high temperatures (like in the dishwasher) degrades the plastic which becomes unstable and more likely to leach plasticizers into your food from the container. Please be sure to always recycle disposable plastics responsibly.

Update 5/23/08 Here is another article from the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy about harmful plastics and safer alternatives.