Take a look around your home and count the items that are made with plastic. Then, consider the less obvious sources: the dust accumulating on your bookshelf, the linings of soup cans, food packaging, cosmetics, even your tap water and beer. Plastic is everywhere, and like many parents, I worry about the danger it poses to my kids’ health.
In a 2019 study, for instance, researchers screened 34 common plastic products — including plastic wraps, bags, food containers, drink bottles and place mats — and found that 74 percent of them tested positive for potentially toxic chemicals. While this study didn’t investigate whether the plastics were harmful to humans, it did indicate the need for more research. Together, the 34 products were found to contain 1,411 different chemical features, and the researchers were only able to match 18 percent of them with known chemicals. In other words, we hardly know what’s in many plastics, let alone how they might affect human health.
But the prospect of eliminating plastics from my life feels overwhelming.
Seeking clarity about how to triage, I spoke with four researchers, two of them pediatricians, who are studying how chemicals in plastic affect our health and why it’s worth reducing your family’s exposure to them. Here, some simple ways to do that.
While the research is compelling and alarming, the science is ongoing, and there is still some uncertainty about the magnitude of risk. Some findings, particularly those on the effects of BPA, are inconsistent and controversial. “What we’re talking about now is this kind of gray zone where some of us feel like we have enough evidence to be concerned,” said Kim Harley, Ph.D., a reproductive epidemiologist and associate director of the Center for Environmental Research and Children’s Health at the University of California Berkeley. “We can’t say 100 percent that plastics are going to cause harm to your baby,” she said, but the research is convincing enough that it’s worth trying to avoid these chemicals when you can.
Because of the lack of sufficient government regulations surrounding chemicals in food and plastics, said Dr. Sathyanarayana, the pediatrician from Seattle, the burden is on people to decide for themselves what is safe. She and Dr. Trasande, on behalf of the American Academy of Pediatrics, have called for better federal regulations to protect kids from plastics and food additives.
Figuring out what to avoid can feel overwhelming in a world awash in plastic, but a little reduction can go a long way. Phthalates and bisphenols don’t stay in your body permanently, so making changes has an immediate effect. “If you reduce your exposure, you can wash out these chemicals from your body within a matter of days,” Dr. Harley said. It’s impossible to completely eliminate such chemicals from your life, however, so go about it in a way that makes sense for you, said Dr. Sathyanarayana.
The more steps there are between farm and table, the more chances for chemicals found in things like plastic tubing or storage containers to find their way into your food, said Dr. Sathyanarayana. Processed meals, such as those purchased from fast food restaurants or grocery stores (think boxed macaroni and cheese), can be convenient and necessary on occasion, but can contain high levels of phthalates. Studies also suggest that higher-fat foods — like certain meat and dairy products — can accumulate more phthalates than others. Bisphenols lurk in the linings of cans, so soups and sauces that are packed in cartons tend to be safer choices; as are fresh or frozen fruits and veggies. (The plastic bags used for frozen produce don’t contain phthalates or bisphenols, and cold temperatures make leaching of chemicals from plastic much less likely, Dr. Sathyanarayana said.)
Few studies have directly tested how much these changes in food choices affect overall exposure to BPA and phthalates, but one study of just 20 people from 2011 showed that when participants switched from their regular diets to one of fresh foods not packaged in plastic or cans, their urinary concentrations of BPA dropped by 66 percent and phthalates dropped by 53 to 56 per
Bisphenols can hide in the plastics we use to store food and drinks, so when possible, use metal or glass versions of baby bottles, sippy cups, food storage containers and water bottles. The Food and Drug Administration banned BPA from baby bottles and sippy cups in 2012 and in infant formula packaging in 2013, but some companies have replaced it with similar chemicals, said Dr. Trasande, so a product labeled “bisphenol A-free doesn’t necessarily mean safe.”
When you use plastic, look at the recycling code on the bottom for clues about what’s in it. Dr. Trasande recommended avoiding items labeled 3 for phthalates, 6 for styrene and 7 for bisphenols. (Styrene, which is found in Styrofoam and other plastic products, is “reasonably anticipated” to be a human carcinogen, according to the National Institutes of Health. Though styrene levels are generally low in food, it’s still worth avoiding, according to Dr. Trasande and the A.A.P.) Dr. Trasande also recommended tossing plastics that are scratched or showing signs of wear and avoiding plastic wrap, which can contain phthalates.
Warming plastics by heating them in the microwave, using them for hot foods or washing them in the dishwasher can increase the chance that harmful chemicals will leach from them and end up in your food or liquid.
Phthalates can be found in glues, adhesives (such as those found on tape), carpet backings, vinyl shower curtains and floors, and other soft pliable plastics, said Joseph Braun, Ph.D., an epidemiologist at Brown University’s School of Public Health. These chemicals can wind up in the dust in your home, which is why Dr. Braun recommended buying a HEPA-filtered vacuum to filter out the fine particles. A vacuum without a filter just blows the fine particles out the back end, Dr. Braun explained, “and you’ve now heated up all those phthalates and other stuff that’s in your carpet and shot it back out all over your house.”
Cleaning up phthalate-containing dust is even more important when you have a baby crawling around. “Infants and very young children consume a lot more dust and dirt than we do just because of their hand to mouth activity,” said Dr. Braun. Phthalates can also be inhaled or absorbed through th
If you have a vinyl shower curtain, switching to one made with fabric is an easy way to reduce phthalates in your home, said Dr. Harley. Also watch out for vinyl in anti-slip bathtub mats, baby play mats and place mats, and choose products made of other materials
Receipts are usually printed on thermal paper, which contains bisphenols that can be absorbed through the skin. Dr. Braun doesn’t let his 4-year-old daughter touch receipts, “which bugs her, of course, because she wants to hold the receipt like a grow
Phthalates used to be in soft plastic toys, but they were banned in 2008 from toys in the United States. “New plastic toys shouldn’t have phthalates in them,” Dr. Harley said. Still, if your baby is in that stage from 6 months to a year when they want to put everything in their mouth, try to direct them toward wooden or silicone toys. Simply playing with plastic toys is fine, said Dr. Sathyanarayana.