Posted on December 2nd, 2014

Outside the Box – Plastics and Health

By now, everyone knows about BPA which is scientifically known as bisphenol A. This industrial chemical has been found in numerous forms of epoxy resins and polycarbonate plastics, and has been used since the 1890s. Its link to negative health side effects was first noticed in the 1930s, but not widely reported until 1997. The chemical mimics the effects of estrogen, and several studies have linked prenatal exposure to physical and neurological difficulties later in life. Because of this, and other negative side effects of BPA, most companies have stopped using the chemical, and even have gone as far as to advertise their products as BPA-free. While this is good, it is not the end of the road for the dark side of plastics.

A study done in Sweden recently found that two other chemicals commonly used in plastics, DiNP and DEHP, have been linked to altered genital development in boys while in the womb. There is not much known about DiNP yet, but DEHP is found in common vinyl items such as toys, flooring and packaging. By simply handling these plastic and vinyl items during the course of a mother’s life, she can retain traces of these harmful elements in her system which can be measured in urine samples. While this is somewhat frightening, other studies refute the findings, stating there is not a certain causal link. It may noteworthy that plastics make up 85% of medical equipment, and if there is a link between plastics and negative side effects, this could become a major issue.

MDAnderson_HoustonTX_1_18_2014_WV2_50cmcolor_ENHANCEOne of the three original cancer centers as established by the National Cancer Act of 1971, MD Anderson in Houston, Texas focuses on caring for the person as well as the disease. A documentary titled, “The Art of the Possible,” looks at how health care can change for the better when individuals are treated as people, and not just numbers. 50-cm color image captured by WorldView-2 on January 18, 2014 and comes courtesy of DigitalGlobe. Photo enhanced by Apollo Mapping.

Industry watchdogs are quick to point out that the benefit of doubt on whether plastics are truly harmful is on their side. If we only focus on BPA, say some, we have to be aware that the chemical has not been eradicated from the market. Many canned foods still come with BPA lined insides to maintain freshness. They also warn that exposing any plastic to heat risks decomposition, allowing chemicals to leach into foods. When in doubt, recycle it; and use glass, stainless steel or porcelain as much as possible.

Plastics also have harmful side effects on our environment. Through the science of respirometry, we all know that that those plastic bags you get at grocery stores take forever to breakdown (maybe as long as several hundred years). Across the nation, anytime we choose to let grocers bag our food for us, we’re typically charged ten cents per bag used. We are also aware of the potential for stray bags to impact wildlife by causing tangles or getting ingested when mistaken as food. So how can we increase our quality of life by abandoning the use of plastics for good?

Some independent stores like in.gredients in Austin, Texas and ZERO market in Boulder, Colorado are leading the charge with zero-waste markets. These stores operate on customers brining in their own bags, bins, jars and bottles (preferably not plastic) in order to reduce waste. As the website for in.gredients states, waste is a human invention. These stores, and others like them, are popping all over the world with the hopes to change how we think about buying, transporting and storing food. By making the move to reusable containers and putting that responsibility on the consumer, there is a chance for real change in how waste accumulates. This trend also leads to smarter consumers who are more conscious about what industries do to us unconsciously; oftentimes putting our sugar and salt laden, over-processed foods in environmentally unfriendly containers that just happen to pose further risks to our health.

Justin Harmon
Staff Writer

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