Julie Whittington, RD

Healthy tips from a Registered Dietitian

Plastic safety in question

How safe are the plastics you use to store your food and beverages?  What about the plastics your children play with day to day?  Recent research is bringing to light some not so pretty results.  And, although some groups, including the Food and Drug Administration (www.fda.gov) feel that most plastics release such small amounts of chemicals that the human effect would be negligible, other groups are a great deal more wary. 


On the whole, plastics have been getting bad publicity lately.  Much of the bad press, however, is related to research – including that done by the Environmental Protection Agency (www.epa.gov) and other health groups.  While personally, I believe there are certain types of plastics we should try to avoid to protect our health and the health of the planet, it is also important to know that plastics are a huge part of where we are today – making up a large percentage of medical devices, appliances, automotives, industry materials and electrics (including your cell phone that some say may raise the risk of cancer, autism or other conditions…of course, that is a whole other issue).  It may be a “catch 22”, though, since we benefit from them but also may be harmed by them.  You see, plastics can release chemicals into the environment during their production and also often their use and degradation (i.e. in landfills or in the repeated re-use of water bottles).  The implications on human health, including whether these chemicals increase the risk for cancer or childhood illnesses, however, are not fully known.


Take some calm in the fact that we can take many steps when it comes to the foods and beverages we consume and how to store them safely.  Listed below are some steps you can take to better the earth and your health.  If you choose to use plastics safely, you can lower your exposure to harmful chemicals such as BPA (Bisphenol A) and phthalate – both of which may disrupt human hormones when they leach out of plastics and into foods and beverages.  Even though a June 2008 European report is now revising their stance on BPA and feels it may not be a risk to human health, other reports point otherwise.  The conservative approach is to avoid it.  Additionally, recent research suggests fetal phthalate exposure may disrupt male genital formation and reduce sperm counts (see USA Today link below).  More research is needed but, again, the conservative approach is to avoid pthalates, too.


  • Look at the bottom of plastic containers for the recycling symbol (a triangle made of chasing arrows).  The number inside that symbol indicates the type of plastic used.  Avoid plastics with the numbers 3, 6 and 7.  Safer plastics include numbers 1, 2, 4 and 5.
  • Avoid refilling disposable water or beverage bottles, such as the water sold in cases at the grocery store.  In fact, try not to buy them at all, since they create a lot of waste.  Americans throw out more than 30 million water bottles per day!  Although most of these bottles are made of safer plastics, they can still degrade and release chemicals into the water you drink – especially after repeated use or if they get hot (say, sitting in your hot car or in hot storage).
  • Instead of buying disposable water bottles, buy a thermos-style water bottle to refill on your own.  Safer brands include Thermos, Kleen Kanteen, Sigg, Thinksport and New Wave.
  • Limit the use of plastic cling wrap.  If you do use it, try not to let it touch the food – and definitely do not put it in the microwave or let it sit on top of hot food.  Some companies are developing newer types of cling wrap with less harmful ingredients – so, this may certainly help the industry!
  • Choose fresh or frozen produce when you can, to avoid exposure to BPA, which can leach out of canned food/drink linings and into the food/drink.  Do not worry about eating canned foods or drinks some of the time.  The effect is likely more harmful if these foods are eaten in large quantities. 
  • Store food in glass, stainless steel, porcelain or ceramic containers.  If you choose to continue using plastic containers, avoid filling them with hot foods/beverages and try to wash them by hand, rather than in the dishwasher.
  • Choose baby bottles made of glass or BPA-free materials.  Most companies are choosing to remove BPA from baby bottles in the near future.  Safe brands include Born Free, Sassy MAM, Medela, Think Baby Bottles, Adiri, Green to Go, Evenflo, Momo, Dr Brown’s glass bottles, Wee-go and the Playtex Drop-in Liners (the liners and nipples are BPA-free, but the bottles are not yet).  Other brands may be available, too.  Playtex should be all BPA-free by the end of the year.


While we can worry that all the materials around us may harm our health in some way (especially if taken in high doses), it is important to take small steps.  Do the things realistic for your lifestyle to reduce your risks for exposure to potentially harmful chemicals. And, remember, it is likely that small amounts of these chemicals may indeed have no effect on human health.  High exposure in adults or any exposure to fetuses, infants and children may be the biggest health threat. 


See the post below, written in August 2007, and added to the site today to give you further information.


Here are some more links you may find helpful:








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