You may be careful to buy only BPA-free toys, clear wrap, travel mugs, and other plastics. Doing so is supposed to spare your family from hormone-disrupting chemicals. But these items still aren’t safe (if by safe you mean products that don’t leach other hormone-disrupting chemicals). A new study indicates that nearly every plastic product (including BPA-free) is made up of chemicals that stimulate estrogenic activity (EA) in human cells.
Estrogen made by our bodies in the right quantities at the right time is a good thing. But chemicals with EA have been linked to a whole slew of frightening problems like increased rates of reproductive cancers, premature puberty in girls, lowered sperm counts, obesity, and more.
To perform the study, University of Texas researchers purchased 455 widely available plastic products. Although most were labeled “BPA-free” it wasn’t possible to determine exactly what chemicals they contained. Apparently this is proprietary information closely guarded by industry. To determine if the products had estrogenic effects, researchers exposed extracted versions to solvents meant to mimic food and beverage items these plastics were likely to contain. Then, they exposed these extracts to a type of human breast cancer cell that’s highly receptive to estrogen. Cells that multiplied in the presence of plastic extracts indicated that those particular chemicals were estrogenic.
The results? Nearly every plastic product they tested leached EA chemicals. Some BPA-free products actually released more EA than other plastics. That included eco-friendly plastics made from plant products, which apparently released EA due to the additives used.
In addition, the researchers checked the effect of sunlight, microwave use, and dishwasher use on the products being studied. They determined plastics leach more EA after these ordinary stressors.
I’m not sure about some of the methodology used in this study, for example, to simulate a dishwasher they heated plastic in an autoclave to a temperature much hotter than average household appliances reach, possibility making the plastic degrade in ways it wouldn’t from normal use. But I prefer to avoid taking a chance. I’ve read too many studies showing there are markers of plastic-derived endocrine disruptors in some species of amphibians, the same ones manifesting a range of dysmorphic features.
We aren’t plastic-free here by any means, but a few years ago I started using heavy glass storage dishes of all sizes (some vintage ones found in resale shops and some new). I use my old plastic containers to store homemade soap powders and craft supplies. I pack lunches in metal food containers and fabric sandwich bags whenever possible. And when buying toys I aim for creative, open-ended Waldorf-y items rather than those buzzing, beeping plastic things that crowd toy store shelves.
Are plastics a necessary convenience or a risk you’d rather avoid? Check out these and other resources and us know what you think.