Question: Have plastic food and beverage containers been proven safe?
During the film’s graduation party in THE GRADUATE, Mr. McGuire pulls Benjamin Braddock (Dustin Hoffman) aside to offer sage advice for his future. His future would be one word: “plastics.”
Of course, we all know Mr. McGuire’s advice and prognostication was correct. Plastics can only be made by man in his infinite wisdom, hence they are patentable. The profit in the manufacture of plastics has been huge. Plastics are everywhere. Plastic manufacturing now uses 4% of the world’s oil production annually. Automobiles are now 9% plastic. It is of my special concern that more foods and beverages are being put into plastic containers. Plastics are ubiquitous now. They persist and accumulate in our society as their production exceeds their chemical degradation rate. Harmful chemicals from plastics are now commonly found in groundwater, waterways, and drinking water.
While standing out in the summer heat in Phoenix, Arizona in 1981, my girlfriend asked me what was causing the film to form on the inside of the windshield of her new Mazda 626. She said that she had to wipe it off every morning so she could see to drive to work. I didn’t know then. I do now! It was phthalates, the chemical that was added to the plastic dash cover to soften it and prevent cracking. I’m sure by now most of the phthalate has evaporated into our atmosphere and the Mazda is in some junkyard with a cracked up dash.
Phthalates are EDC’s (Endocrine Disrupting Chemicals.) They are chemicals found in recycle codes #1 through #6 plastics. Another EDC (Bisphenol A) is in recycle code #7 plastics. All of these types of plastic EDC’s interfere with the function of sex hormones receptors. In THE GRADUATE Benjamin was quite a stud. I wonder if he’s now taking one of the popular drugs to treat erectile dysfunction, a disorder that has become one of the many epidemics in our new plastic world.
In 2003 a group of Croatian scientists reported that phthalates in plastics dissolved in various solutions. They used a variety of plastic items, including plastic food containers. After 10 days of sitting in distilled water, an average of 55.4 mg/ of phthalates from each kilogram of plastic “migrated” into the water. To a lesser degree the phthalates from plastics dissolved into acetic acid 3% (44.4 mg/kg) and 10% ethyl alcohol (32.3 mg/kg).
The Croatian study shows what Benjamin would suspect, if he took chemistry in college: Water is the universal solvent; and it dissolves even the primarily fat soluble phthalates. The more that you filter water to remove other toxic solutes, the more aggressive water becomes in its power to reach osmolar equilibrium by dissolving its non-inert containers.
What is also obviously missing from the Croatians’ controlled, static testing model are the temperature variations that the plastic bottled water product goes through to get from bottling point to the mouth of the consumer. Transport trucks probably reach a very high temperature in the non refrigerated cargo areas that carry PETE (recycle code #1 plastic) bottled water in the summer. Heat facilitates the dissolution of phthalates into the water. Then the bottles may be stored for a much longer time than 10 days prior to consumption. Furthermore, freezing the containers produces micro-fissures in the interior surface of the plastic bottle container as the water expands, exponentially exposing more solute surface area. Traumatic handling or any motion of the package will further enhance diffusion. Applying the laws of physics, all of these factors clearly by extrapolation will increase the water dissolution of the plastic containers.
Fatty foods in plastic containers are even more problematic, as fats are absorbed differently and carry their phthalate solvents into our bodies more easily. Phthalates bio-accumulate because of their fat solubility. Phthalates concentrate in such fat organs in our bodies such as brains, prostates, testicles, ovaries, breasts and, unfortunately, breast milk. (The other popular food alternatives for infants are worse. Commercial baby formulas are loaded with the manmade phthalates.)
I think the worst example of food containment in plastic is milk. All milk except non-fat milk contains fat. Cow milk itself represents a major source of the fats ingested by the public, especially children. Cattle concentrate these chemicals by bioaccummulation because EDC’s from plastics are ubiquitous in water and most animal food sources. Meat and dairy products are therefore a major contributor to this group of human food chain derived toxins, regardless of their containment. It is now irresponsible to add more phathalates to the products by putting the milk products in plastic containers that add MORE EDC’s.
Cattle have intentially been “fattened up” by adding hormones AND unintentially “fattened up” more by the contamination of cattle food and water by EDC’s. The combination of these chemicals passed on to the consumers in concentrated form in milk products will most likely exacerbate obesity in humans that consume them as well.
Our current scientific knowledge and common sense screams for an end to consumer purchase of milk bottled in plastics. Until milk companies have their products quantatatively analysed for these EDC’s by competent independent laboratories, my strong recommendation is to avoid purchase and consumption of milk and dairy products contained in plastic.
Sadly, the Croatian authors’ 2003 conclusions about the safety of plastics were: “These (exposure) levels would not present a hazard for human health, not even for a prolonged period of time.” However, what was deemed acceptable levels of phthalates in 2003 now is recognized as “crystal clearly” too high.
Selective interpretations from the ACC (American Chemistry Council) lead to this erroneously high level being “set” for past toxicity standards. The ACC is an “industry group” advisor. It’s much like the wolf guarding the henhouse. Thanks to the ACC efforts, control regulations placed upon this chemical class are minimal. An ongoing perpetuation of phthalate approval for use in virtually everything, including containment of food, has resulted. In fact, the perpetuation of these mythological high safety standards has resulted in the majority of our food being wrapped or contained in plastics that leach EDC’s into our foods.
The ACC’s Phthalate Esters Panel is made up representatives from BASF, Eastman Chemical, Exxon-Mobil Chemical, Ferro, and Teknor Apex Corporations. After graduating, Benjamin could have gone to work for any of these companies to share the wealth that plastics manufacturing have reaped, instead of hanging around and sporting Mrs. Robinson for the summer!
I love one of the rationalization examples the ACC makes on their PHTHALATES INFORMATION CENTER webpage: “Thanks to phthalates, your nail polish doesn’t chip.” I wonder if they are aware of the “unexplained” high rate of breast cancer in manicurists. I also wonder if they are aware that most breast tissues and breast cancers have sex hormone receptors that are acted upon by the EDC’s found in plastics.
To further confuse the public, the ACC webpage also redefines the PRECAUTIONARY PRINCIPLE which in its un-perverted definition simply is: A (chemical) should not be considered safe until it is proven safe. Environmentalists who are trying to unravel the cause-effect relationships of environment chemicals, to the otherwise unexplained epidemics of various diseases now affecting man as well as every species on our planet, encourage its application. The ACC’s watered down version suggests that cost effective, fearless risks are worth taking.
Can the ACC keep up the phthalate safety illusion forever? The American Tobacco Association almost got away with it!
We now know that EDC’s, like hormones themselves require very minute amounts to have physiologic impact. EDC’s are active in parts per trillion! For example, the usual adult maintenance dose of levothyroxine, a drug to replace depleted natural thyroid hormone in hypothyroidism, is 1.6 micrograms/Kg/day. Why would I even think about saying that a dose in the milligrams (1000 times as much as a microgram) of a known EDC would be safe, especially for a child or developing fetus?
We now know that phthalates also work in synergy with chemicals in other classes to exert “more than additive” physiologic effects.
Previous experiments in rodents showed that high levels of phthalates interfer with testosterone during gestation resulting in birth defects of the genitalia, testicular cancer, and infertility in the rats.
The ACC inspired acceptable level of phthalate myth should be blown out of the water with a recent study completed by the University of Rochester School of Medicine and Dentistry. This study of 85 human infant boys reported in May 2005 showed that phthalate levels found normally in the general population adversely influenced sexual development. The phthalate exposure these children had correlated with smaller penis size and incomplete testicular descent, which is a condition that greatly increases the risk of testicular cancer if left untreated.
Solution 1 – Choose glass containers over plastic for purchase and storage of food and beverages including milk and water.
American children can consume several milligrams of phthalate each day.
I wonder if THE GRADUATE’s Mr. Robinson noticed that most of the teenage girls now-days have bigger breasts than his seductive wife (gynecomastia), and that they begin thelarche (breast development) and menarche (menstruation) at a significantly younger age, or that many more have an endocrine pathology called PCOS (polycystic ovary syndrome).
The chances of a woman getting breast cancer in her lifetime has probably gone from a risk of less than 1 in 10 (10%) before THE GRADUATE was made to a 1 in about 7.5 (13.2 %) rate today.
The choice to avoid food chain plastics is a “no-brainer” when you understand how these chemicals persist and accumulate in our environment, and how they function in our bodies!
Solution 2 – Choose stainless steel containers over plastic for storage of food and beverages including water.
Unfortunately, we are past the point of no return with phthalates. Just like
cigarettes I think we’ll have to live as prisoners with their impact on future generations. The only defense we have at this time is to individually choose to avoid them when we can, to mitigate their effects on our health.
Phthalates clearly act upon hormone receptors in both men and women. A concern is the potential phthalate impact on breast and other hormone sensitive tissue in human females, but phthalate’s demasculinizing potential on males is more of a threat to all species on the planet.
Unlike Mr. McGuire, I think we can choose a better future by avoiding his “one word.” We should start by trying to reduce plastics in our food chain exposures.