PEELING BACK PLASTIC PACKAGING: WHAT WE (DON’T) KNOW ABOUT PLASTIC EXPOSURES

Article Author: Kira Levenson, Biochemistry Major, Class of 2022, POB Science Translator

Plastic products and plastic packaging are pervasive in our daily lives, conveniently keeping our shopping trips mess-free and storing our tasty leftovers. From a thin plastic food wrap to the bottle filled with hand lotion, plastic is everywhere. However, plastic materials are loaded with chemicals that give them specialized qualities. In particular, many of the chemicals included in packaging are endocrine-disrupting chemicals (EDCs), despite the fact that many EDCs are known to be hazardous to human health. 

EDCs interfere with the endocrine system, a crucial and complex system that regulates human growth, development, reproduction, and more using various signals that tell cells what to do. Like a sports team with individual players contributing to a common goal, each element of the endocrine  system must work together as a single unit to correctly send and receive the millions of signals needed for proper human function and health.

The signals that regulate the endocrine system are commonly known as hormones. These small molecules travel throughout the body to wherever they’re needed. Since EDCs mimic natural hormones, they can be accepted into the system with erroneous results. Exposure to endocrine disruptors is especially harmful during developmental periods up through a woman’s first full-term pregnancy. The health effects of EDC exposure can be negative, long-term, and often irreversible.

Two studies from June and August of 2021 reveal just how little information is truly available to both researchers and the general public about plastic components used in manufacturing, and how EDCs leach from plastics into the environment. During leaching, chemicals escape from the plastic compounds into the environment over time, most notably when exposed to heat or other chemicals.

Wiesinger et. al underwent an intensive categorization and analysis of over 10,000 current chemicals and compounds used in plastic manufacturing. They found that over 2,400 of their studied substances showed a cause for concern by meeting “one or more of the persistence, bioaccumulation, and toxicity criteria in the European Union” (Wiesinger et. al, 2021). These combined criteria are strong indicators of whether a substance could be harmful to human health. In addition, the researchers discovered that of the 2,400 substances of concern, many are barely studied (266), minimally regulated in many parts of the world (1,327), or sometimes even approved for use in food contact (901). The researchers make clear that there are currently far more substances used than there is information available– leaving many people gambling on the potential long-term health effects that may occur.

Zimmermann et. al conducted a separate study (in laboratory conditions) which observed the toxicity and chemical properties of common plastic products and how they leach chemicals into water. The researchers found that plastic products spontaneously leach many substances into water, without needing outside influence. Some of these substances were noted to be toxic in laboratory experiments, suggesting that they may also be toxic to human health. The researchers’ results demonstrate that environmental exposure to plastic chemicals occurs at levels far higher than currently believed.

Protect Our Breasts stands by the Precautionary Principle, which advises people to limit usage of, or avoid exposure to, potential harmful substances that lack irrefutable proof of harm. Although we don’t know all of the information about plastics and their risks, we have enough evidence about their risks to take action now for healthier, safer lives.

Wherever you can, try to reduce your use of plastics and other-EDC-containing products one at a time. Try to avoid plastics labeled with recycling codes 3, 6, and 7. Swap out your plastic grocery bags for reusable cloth ones. Check the lid of your coffee cup for the number 6, and if it’s there, drink directly from the cup. Instead of reaching for plastic storage containers, use glass alternatives where possible. Look for BPA/F/S-free plastics when you need to use plastic materials. Most importantly, keep yourself informed in a way that works best for you! Staying informed and aware will help you make healthier choices to protect not only your own health, but also the health of those around you.

 

Sources: 

Lisa Zimmermann, Zdenka Bartosova, Katharina Braun, Jörg Oehlmann, Carolin Völker, and Martin Wagner. Environmental Science & Technology 2021 55 (17), 11814-11823. DOI: 10.1021/acs.est.1c01103

Helene Wiesinger, Zhanyun Wang, and Stefanie Hellweg. Environmental Science & Technology 2021 55 (13), 9339-9351. DOI: 10.1021/acs.est.1c00976

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Disclaimer: The information provided herein is the author’s opinion. Our authors are not scientists. We are not providing medical advice, but simply sharing publicly available information. When we reference data and databases, we do so with the caveat that most are only as good as the data they are based on. While POB strives to make the information as timely and accurate as possible, we make no claims, promises, or guarantees about the completeness, or adequacy of the contents of any site that is shared, and expressly disclaims liability for errors and omissions in the contents of these sites. POB goes to great lengths to avoid declaring shared products as “safe” as there is no legal definition of the word “safe” at this time.

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