Plastic has solved many of the problems of industrial society. It’s lightweight, cheap, and easy to produce; no wonder it was once considered a marvel of modern science. Those days are over, though, as we now know that plastic triggers nearly as many problems as it solves.
Its non-biodegradable nature (once hailed as durability) has allowed it to clog our land and oceans, and its toxicity presents a grave threat to human beings, as well as the greater ecosystems of which we are a part.
One of the most common toxic plastic constituents is bisphenol-A (BPA). It can easily be used as a building block of resins, as well as a variety of plastics. It’s also a dangerous endocrine disruptor—that is, it mimics the body’s natural hormones and disrupts normal endocrine function as a result.
Because hormones regulate nearly every aspect of the body, it didn’t take long for researchers to discover the problems that BPA can cause.
A review of relevant medical literature reveals that seventy-five studies link BPA to “adverse perinatal, childhood, and adult health effects,” including cancer, obesity, type 2 diabetes, reproductive issues, asthma, developmental issues, birth defects, compromised gut flora, immune dysfunction, and more.
And these risks affect nearly all of us—even a decade ago, the CDC reported in their National Health and Nutritional Examination Survey that 93% of all the urine samples they analyzed contained detectable levels of BPA.
Such unequivocal data has prompted a widespread campaign to replace BPA-containing plastics with safer alternatives. But researchers are worried that these new plastics are just as bad for us.
How we accidentally discovered that BPA alternatives pose health risks
A recently published study demonstrates that BPS and other BPA variants have biological effects similar to those of BPA. The strange part is that researchers made this discovery accidentally, while attempting to study the reproductive effects of BPA in mice.
Geneticist Patricia Hunt of Washington State University and her research team separated the mice into two groups: one that received doses of BPA through a dropper, and one that did not (the control group). Before long, the control group became almost indistinguishable from the BPA group, with both exhibiting adverse genetic effects.
After much confusion, Hunt finally figured out what was happening: both groups of mice were housed in plastic cages that were leaching bisphenol S (BPS), a widely used replacement for BPA.
This finding shifted the focus of the study, and the final published version reported on the multi-generational genotoxicity of both BPA and “replacement bisphenols.”
The finer details of this genotoxicity are very worrisome: Hunt and her team report that BPA and its analogues can fundamentally disrupt the passing of genetic material during reproduction, and that the effects of such disruption (birth defects, lowered sperm count, reduced egg quality, etc.) can be passed down to future generations.
And toxicity aside, the study results also point to an equally worrisome phenomenon in chemical engineering—namely the tendency to replace chemicals of concern with structurally similar ones. The practice is so common that scientists have a name for these replacement chemicals: regrettable substitutes.
Subsequent studies have come to show just how regrettable BPA alternatives are—evidence overwhelmingly suggests that bisphenol S (BPS), bisphenol F (BPF), bisphenol AF (BPAF), tetrabromobisphenol A (TBBPA), and other structural analogs of BPA are all endocrine disruptors and reproductive toxicants in animal models.
How to minimize your toxicity risk
The study above reveals two worrying truths about the plastic industry.
First, it shows that, when rolling out replacements for plastic compounds that have been deemed toxic, manufacturers are always most likely to choose “regrettable substitutes.” Using structurally similar compounds is dramatically more cost-effective, and this practice isn’t technically prohibited by any existing regulation.
Secondly, the study reminds us that we have no way of knowing the risks of new plastic chemicals until a thorough examination is conducted—and manufacturers are simply not required to conduct any such safety evaluation before bringing their products to market.
The wise move when it comes to plastic products, then, is to assume that they’re toxic until proven safe. Experts particularly recommend avoiding plastics with recycling numbers 3, 6, 7, which all contain chemicals worthy of concern.
The absolute best course of action is to minimize your use of plastic altogether. Plastic is an ecological nightmare anyway, so any attempt to decrease your reliance upon it is beneficial for both your health and the environment. Ditch single-use plastics like grocery bags, takeout containers, straws, and coffee cups—they make up a significant percentage of all discarded plastic, and are easy to replace with reusable alternatives.
If you do still use plastic receptacles or kitchenware, try to avoid the most toxic types listed above, and don’t ever put plasticware in the dishwasher—the heat tends to leach toxic chemicals, which are then redeposited on the rest of your dishes.