SALT LAKE CITY — By now you know that bisphenol A (a chemical used in making polycarbonate plastics, commonly referred to as BPA), is bad news and you've probably taken steps to avoid ingesting it, but do you really know how much plastic you're still consuming?
A recent study by the University of Texas Health Science Center says that even if you're taking precautions like not microwaving your food in plastic containers, most popular supermarket foods may themselves be contaminated with a number of plastic chemicals.
These chemicals, called phthalates, are used to make plastics more flexible and harder to break. Often known as "plasticizers," phthalates are used in hundreds of products, "such as vinyl flooring, adhesives, detergents, lubricating oils, automotive plastics, plastic clothes (raincoats), and personal-care products (soaps, shampoos, hair sprays, and nail polishes)," according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Phthalates are also used in products such as plastic bags, garden hoses, inflatable toys, blood-storage containers, medical tubing and toys for children.
The CDC says people become exposed to phthalates by eating and drinking foods that have been in contact with containers and products containing phthalates — and according to the University of Texas Study, small amounts of phthalates are showing up in your favorite packaged foods.
Researchers sampled 72 commonly consumed foods, including pizza, meats and beverages, and tested them for the presence of phthalates. The outcome: Every single food product sampled contained some level of phthalates.
The study was quick to note that the levels weren't dire: "This is not a cause for alarm because the amount of phthalates found in the food falls below what the Environmental Protection Agency considers safe," said lead investigator Arnold Schecter, M.D., M.P.H., professor of environmental health. Still, he continued, "It is cause for concern because these toxins and others previous reported by this group do not belong in our food or our bodies."
While the CDC says the effects of exposure to low levels of phthalates are unclear, other research links phthalates to breast cancer, birth defects, obesity, asthma, motor and behavioral problems in kids, and sexual dysfunction in men — making this a "better safe than sorry" situation.
How do you know if your products are contaminated? Start by reading the labels. According to The Daily Green, you can identify phthalates in some products by their chemical names or abbreviations:
- DBP (di-n-butyl phthalate) and DEP (diethyl phthalate) are often found in personal care products.
- DEHP (di-(2-ethylhexyl) phthalate or Bis (2-ethylhexyl) phthalate) is used in PVC plastics, including some medical devices.
- BzBP (benzylbutyl phthalate) is used in some flooring, car products and personal care products.
DMP (dimethyl phthalate) is used in insect repellent and some plastics (as well as rocket propellant).
Most experts agree, however, that it's nearly impossible to avoid all phthalates. But there are a number of measures you can easily take to reduce your risk. Here are five expert tips for staying safe:
- Eat less dairy and pork. These foods were those most contaminated, according to the study. If you're going to keep up your consumption, opt for organic instead. "Phthalates are used in pesticides and are also found in sewage sludge that is used in conventional agriculture," says Maia James, founder of Gimme the Good Stuff, an organization that helps consumers choose safe products. "Neither is permitted on certified organic produce, and pesticide-treated animal feeds are not allowed in organic meat and dairy production."
- Limituse of plastic containers and wrap. Keep your leftovers in containers made from stainless steel, silicone or glass, and never re-heat food in plastic. "Even BPA or phthalate-free plastic may contain harmful chemicals," which are released when heated, James says. If you're going to use plastic wrap and bags, the Oregon Environmental Council recommends buying products made from polyethylene, such as GLAD.
- Pay attention to recycling codes. Beyond checking food labels for chemicals, take a look at the recycling code on plastics, if you're going to use them. Choose plastics with the recycling code 1, 2, 4 or 5. Recycling codes 3 and 7 are more likely to contain bisphenol A or phthalates.
- Throw out older plastic toys. While several types of phthalates have been banned from children's toys, teethers, bottles and feeding products, "these laws only took place in 2009, so anything made of soft plastic that was manufactured before that probably contains phthalates," James says. When buying new toys, look for those made from polypropylene or polyethylene or avoid plastic toys altogether, the OEC says.
- Avoid buying scented products. The Daily Green warns consumers to be wary of the term "fragrance," which is used to "denote a combination of compounds, possibly including phthatates." According to the Toxic-Free Legacy Coalition, "phthalates are often used in cosmetics and personal care products to carry fragrances. Under current law, they can then simply be labeled 'fragrance,' even though they may make up 20 percent or more of the product." James says safe products will be labeled with statements like "no synthetic fragrance," "scented with only essential oils" or "phthalate-free." And, she says, "always use only natural air fresheners."