By now, there’s a good chance that — most of the time anyway — you don’t microwave food or drink in plastic dishes. It’s also quite plausible that if you’re a parent, you didn’t wait until bisphenol A — or BPA — was banned in baby bottles and sippy cups to avoid buying such products containing the chemical of concern, which is widely used in making polycarbonate plastics.
But a great swirl of scientific data has stirred up no shortage of provocative, if still preliminary, concerns about the impact some plastics may potentially have on the environment and human health. Research, including a 2014 study published in the journal Environmental Pollution, indicates water bottles might leach chemicals when stored at higher temperatures — something the industry disputes, asserting they’re safe, even when left in, say, a hot car. Other studies have recently brought much attention to so-called microplastics — or tiny pieces of plastic (typically describing plastic particles under 5 millimeters) — polluting the environment and being consumed by people, without an understanding for if or how they may impact a person’s health.
Tests conducted by the State University of New York in Fredonia as part of an Orb Media investigation found that the vast majority — or 93 percent — of bottled water samples evaluated showed some signs of contamination with microplastics. Study results were initially released in March, and the research has since been published, last month, in the peer-reviewed journal Frontiers in Chemistry. In a statement, the International Bottled Water Association said the study “is not based on sound science, and there is no scientific consensus on testing methodology or the potential health impacts of microplastic particles. Therefore, this study’s findings do nothing more than unnecessarily scare consumers.”
Experts say more study is needed to understand the implications of findings on microplastics for not only the environment but also for human health.
While continued research is needed to sort things out, particularly in the area of microplastics, health experts say there are still ways consumers may be able to lower their risk in light of other concerns that have been raised about chemicals used in some plastics.
The American Academy of Pediatrics points out that BPA, which is used to harden plastic containers and to line metal cans, “can act like estrogen in the body and potentially change the timing of puberty, decrease fertility, increase body fat, and affect the nervous and immune systems.” Further, phthalates, another chemical of concern that “makes plastic and vinyl tubes used in industrial food production flexible, may affect male genital development, increase childhood obesity, and contribute to cardiovascular disease,” the AAP warns. The use of certain types of phthalates has been banned by the Consumer Product Safety Commission in some child-care products like teething rings and other toys they might put in their mouth.
Because kids are still developing, clinicians are especially keyed into the possible risks they might face. Still, experts say adults should proceed with caution for their own sake, as well.
“There are fortunately safe and simple steps that parents can take to limit exposure of children and of themselves, quite frankly, to these plastic materials,” says Dr. Leonardo Trasande, who directs the Division of Environmental Pediatrics within the Department of Pediatrics at NYU Langone Health in New York City. Trasande, a member of the AAP Council on Environmental Health, was the lead author of an academy policy statement released in July that highlighted how chemicals found in not only food additives but packaging may pose health risks to kids, and called for increased transparency and regulation of additives like bisphenols and phthalates.
The AAP also laid out things consumers can do in the meantime to limit exposure to chemicals of concern. For example:
— If you haven’t stopped this already, don’t nuke things in plastic. If possible, avoid microwaving food or beverages, such as infant formula and pumped breast milk, in plastic. “There’s no such thing as microwave safe plastic,” Trasande says. “‘Microwave safe’ really refers to a more crude cutoff for what can happen to the plastic material — to the integrity of the plastic material in the microwave, at a growth level, but not at a microscopic level.” In other words, “microwave safe” means the container won’t melt in the microwave, but experts say it’s no assurance against plastic chemicals leaching into your food or drink.
— Avoid putting plastic food or drink containers in the dishwasher. This is another way to prevent potential leaching of chemicals from plastic material into what you or your child might eat or drink.
— When possible, use alternatives to plastic, like glass or stainless steel, AAP advises. “Several years ago, I switched to stainless steel containers,” says Cheryl Watson, an emeritus professor in the biochemistry and molecular biology department at the University of Texas Medical Branch in Galveston, Texas, who’s done extensive research on bisphenols.
Certainly not all plastics have been associated with potential health concerns linked to bisphenols. So the AAP recommends, if using plastic products, going by the recycling code on the bottom and generally avoiding those with codes 3: phthalates; 6: styrene — which is considered a possible carcinogen, or cancer-causing chemical, by the International Agency for Research on Cancer; and 7: bisphenols — with the exception being products labeled “biobased” or “greenware,” which indicates that they’re made from corn and don’t contain bisphenols.
But even recycling codes don’t tell the whole story, Watson points out. “The problem these days is that you can’t even look at the bottom of the bottle and tell anything other than what the major plastic is in the bottle, because they mix a lot of them,” she says.
Of course, there’s no getting away from plastics entirely in the modern world — even if one really wanted to — and no proven, pressing need to do so. “It’s not like I don’t ever get takeout. Of course I do,” Watson laughs. “But I’d say a salad is safer than an entree probably” — owing to the plastic not being heated up by the food.
Still, experts advise taking steps where you can to try to lower risk and lessen the environmental impact. Watson puts filtered water in a stainless steel bottle, instead of buying bottled water, to reduce waste. But she doesn’t recommend refilling empty bottled water containers. “You don’t want to reuse it, because then it will leach out even more — there’s some studies that say as the plastic ages, it does this even more,” she says. Similarly, watch using worn plastic bowls, plates or cups. “If the plastic material is obviously etched or scratched, it’s time to throw it away,” Trasande says. “That means that the protective barrier that in theory limits contamination has been broken.”
More from U.S. News
Correction 10/10/18: A previous version of this story incorrectly stated that microplastics research had not been published in a peer-reviewed journal.