As the world grapples with the twin environmental issues of climate change and pollution, plastic has emerged as a significant contributor to both. What many people may not realize is why plastics are toxic to human health.
Here, we will delve into the top five reasons why plastics can be toxic to your health, and explore some actions we can take to mitigate their effects.
Many plastics are toxic to health because they contain chemicals such as phthalates and bisphenol A (BPA), which can act as endocrine disruptors. These compounds interfere with our bodies' hormone systems, mimicking, blocking, or otherwise altering the functions of hormones. Exposure to endocrine-disrupting chemicals can lead to a host of health problems, including developmental issues, reproductive disorders, immune system impairment, and increased cancer risk.
For example, studies have shown a correlation between prenatal exposure to phthalates and developmental disorders in children, such as attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and lower IQ. Similarly, exposure to BPA has been associated with increased risk of cardiovascular diseases and diabetes.
In addition to the endocrine-disrupting compounds, some plastics, especially when heated, release carcinogenic compounds. Polystyrene, used in foam food containers and disposable cutlery, can leach styrene, a suspected carcinogen. Similarly, when plastic bottles and food containers are microwaved, they can release carcinogenic dioxins into the food or beverage they contain.
Certain chemicals found in plastics, such as phthalates and BPA, have been linked to an increased risk of chronic diseases. These include obesity, heart disease, and diabetes. The chemicals can interfere with metabolism and fat cell development, leading to weight gain and metabolic disorders. This correlation was demonstrated in a study conducted by the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey, which found that high urinary concentrations of phthalates were associated with an increased risk of diabetes.
Plastics can also have detrimental impacts on the nervous system. Chemicals found in plastics, such as lead, cadmium, and vinyl chloride, are known neurotoxins. Chronic exposure to these substances can lead to a range of neurological conditions, including learning and behavioral problems, lower IQ, and even neurodegenerative diseases like Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s.
Mental Health Concerns
Recent studies suggest that exposure to endocrine-disrupting chemicals, including those found in plastics, may be associated with mental health issues, including anxiety and depression. While the exact mechanisms are not fully understood, it's thought that these chemicals can interfere with the normal functioning of hormones that regulate mood and stress responses.
Mitigating Plastic Exposure: Alternatives to Plastic
Recognizing the dangers posed by plastics is the first step. The next is to actively reduce our exposure. Here are some practical steps we can all take:
Invest in reusable alternatives to common single-use plastic items. Use reusable shopping bags, water bottles, coffee cups, and food containers. Not only will this decrease your plastic exposure, but it also helps to reduce overall plastic waste.
Avoid Heating Plastic
Heating plastic can increase the leaching of harmful chemicals. Avoid microwaving food in plastic containers and don't leave plastic water bottles in hot cars.
Opt for Glass, Stainless Steel or Silicone
These materials are safe alternatives to plastic for food and beverage storage. Glass and stainless steel are durable, non-reactive, and do not leach chemicals. Silicone, while still a synthetic polymer, is heat-resistant and less likely to release harmful toxins.
Choose Fresh Foods
Packaged foods are often wrapped in plastic, which can leach harmful chemicals into the food, especially fatty, salty, or acidic foods. Opt for fresh foods whenever possible.
Support policies that aim to reduce plastic use and increase the use of safer alternatives. Collective action can bring about systemic change in the production, usage, and disposal of plastics.
While plastic is a versatile material that has revolutionized many aspects of modern life, the adverse health effects it can cause should not be overlooked. By making conscious choices to reduce our exposure to plastics, we can safeguard not only our health but also the health of our planet.