Plastic Fantastic (Not!)

Amid frenzied media reports of “deadly chemicals” in Thanksgiving foods, a new study showing that eating canned soup sharply raises concentrations of bisphenol-A in the body, and the gnashing of teeth by bloggers worried by the health risks of sous-vide cooking, health-conscious households everywhere are reverberating with the dull “thud-plunk-plop” of plastic kitchenware being flung into garbage pails. Or at least, mine is.

Having written about the dangers of kitchen plastics here, I recently decided to rid myself of plastic bowls, storage tubs and utensils and invest in safer alternatives. Plastic mixing bowls have been replaced with stainless steel; plastic spatulas and chopping boards ceded their place to bamboo substitutes (much more attractive, incidentally); and my plastic electric kettle (deviously posing as a stainless steel kettle which, on closer examination, revealed a plastic inner casing) was replaced by a stainless steel stove-top kettle – complete with whistle for full-blown retro appeal!

Admittedly, plastics probably don’t pose the biggest health risk of them all. Environmental pollutants, dangerous microorganisms, radiation, or getting knocked off your bicycle on your way to work pose greater risks to your health than your plastic lunch box. But unlike these factors — which are virtually impossible for us to influence — there are many other health hazards (in particular with regard to cancer risk) that we can and should avoid: smoking, obesity, a sedentary lifestyle, junk food. And the plastics that come in contact with our food.

Just to recap: the vast majority of plastics currently used in food processing — whether it’s in the linings of cans, plastic food wrap and sandwich bags, disposable water bottles, silicone cake moulds and implements, Tetrapak containers, airtight food storage containers, convenience-food packaging or kitchen appliances (espresso makers, kettles, water filters, etc.) — contain chemical compounds that leach into the foods we eat, and which, once ingested, can have adverse health effects.

In a recent US-government funded investigation, a research team from Texas found that 92% of all kitchen plastics tested leached these compounds into food they came into contact with, even when they were not being stressed (e.g. exposed to heat or light). Under stress, some 98% of plastics gave off these compounds. The widely publicized bisphenol-A is one such chemical, but there are many others used in plastics manufacturing whose adverse health effects may be even more powerful than those of BPA.

These compounds, known collectively as “xenoestrogens” (i.e. “foreign” estrogens which mimic those produced naturally in the human body), are being linked to a growing number of health problems, such as early puberty in females, reduced sperm counts, altered functions of reproductive organs, obesity, altered sex-specific behaviors, and increased rates of some breast, ovarian, testicular, and prostate cancers. They are thought to be particularly dangerous to fetuses, infants and children, but may affect adults too. Particularly worryingly to cancer patients, BPA can block the effects of certain chemotherapy drugs.

Defenders of plastics, notably the chemical and food-packaging industries, argue that there is no definitive proof that BPA and other estrogenic chemicals have adverse effects. But others believe that since test tube research, animal experiments and human observation studies indicate clear risks, the “precautionary principle” (i.e. “suspect until proven innocent”) should prevail — especially since estrogen-leaching plastics are everywhere, from soda cans to cash-register receipts.

“As long ago as the 1920s, people referred to cigarettes as “cancer sticks”,” says Dr. Stuart Yaniger, co-author of the Texas study and a plastics industry veteran. He is responsible for research and development at PlastiPure, a company that researches endocrine disruptors and develops safer plastic alternatives for packaging manufacturers. “It took another 50 years until regulators finally took action to protect people’s health.”

In the case of estrogenic plastics, he says, it’s best not to wait until the scientists make up their minds. “We know the sources of these chemicals, and avoiding them isn’t difficult or expensive, so while the epidemiologists and toxicologists continue debating their possible risks, the plastics industry should address this now,” Yaniger says.

His proposed solution lies in reformulating plastics in such a way that they no longer contain estrogenic compounds. Tetrapak-style packaging, for one, requires such small changes that it would be “trivial” to reformulate, he says. Others items that could easily and inexpensively be reformulated include plastic bags, food wrap, food storage containers, pouches, baby bottles, sippy cups and silicone kitchenware, he says.

Others again, like the plastic resins used to line the insides of food cans, may take longer and be more expensive to reformulate due to the technical challenge of devising a coating that will reliably stick to metal throughout the forming process, never pinhole or flake off, withstand the heat of canning, and be non-reactive with a wide range of foods. Sadly, one of the biggest hurdles to reformulating these is the extra two cents per can that the newer liners represent, says Yaniger.

Ultimately, “packaging manufacturers will grumble, but if they see that consumers and retailers want estrogen-free plastics, they will do the right thing,” he predicts. Indeed, when mass-retailer Wal-Mart realized that mothers were no longer buying baby bottles containing BPA, it replaced them in 2008 with BPA-free bottles — long before legislators got involved.

“Consumers are always the primary drivers for this sort of thing,” says Yaniger. “If they make a lot of noise about spending money elsewhere, they will be heard – and quickly, too.”

To help you get heard, I have drafted the following letter (based on a similar document by the Breast Cancer Fund) that you can adapt and send to food manufacturers, packaging producers, your Congressman or MP, supermarkets and health-food shops (alas, many health-food brands also use estrogenic packaging materials).

Dear Consumer Affairs Representative / Congressman / Member of Parliament / Supermarket Manager,

As a consumer [and parent of young children – where applicable] I am very concerned about estrogen-like compounds in the plastics that come into contact with the food we eat.

Estrogenic compounds, such as bisphenol-A (BPA), are linked to an a wide range of health problems, such as early puberty in females, reduced sperm counts, altered functions of reproductive organs, obesity, and increased rates of some breast, ovarian, testicular, and prostate cancers. Babies and young children are particularly susceptible to the effects of these chemicals.

I am concerned that there are estrogen-like compounds in the packaged food products [specify: cans, plastic tubs, water bottles, pouches, bags or other] that your company sells. Canned foods marketed to children are particularly problematic.

My health and the health of young children are important to me, so I don’t want to purchase food packaged with BPA and similar compounds.

Some food companies, such as Eden Organics and Vital Choice, are already reformulating their packaging to remove these compounds. Please can I ask you to undertake every effort to do so too, and provide safe food that we can feed our children and ourselves?

I look forward to hearing how, and when, you will begin addressing this pressing issue.

Alternatives to plastics

A second line of defense against estrogenic plastics that I have begun to adopt is to change the way you consume food. This can be done in many ways (some of which I discussed in my previous blog post), for example:

  • Cooking from scratch rather than buying food in tins or plastic packages (e.g. oven-roasted mashed pumpkin makes an even tastier Thanksgiving pie than canned pumpkin!)
  • Buying fresh food (e.g. from vegetable stores, CSA schemes, farmers’ markets) and using it up within two to three days, rather than buying and storing food that’s packed in plasticover longer periods
  • Using a freezer for long-term food storage, reducing the need for plastic-lined tins (frozen vegetables and fruits are generally more flavorful and nutritious than canned ones anyway)
  • Replacing plastic storage containers with glass or stainless steel
  • Canning your own food: I preserve tomatoes and peaches in glass jars (much tastier than store-bought canned equivalents) and have even tried my hand at canned fish (salmon with lemon, dill and olive oil – surprisingly tasty). When canning food, however, be careful to follow reliable instructions to avoid poisoning your family with dangerous bacteria. I have used this excellent book about food-preserving.