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Plastics and the Hidden Threat to your Health – Think before you buy

Editorial by Martyn Futter, Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences, Associated partner of the NonHazCity project

Plastics and the additives they contain are everywhere in our daily lives. They are in our homes, our workplaces, our clothes and our bodies. Plastics are everywhere because they are convenient and they are cheap. Chemicals are added during manufacturing to give desirable properties such as flexibility, durability and flame resistance. However, this convenience comes at a cost. Chemical additives in plastic items and articles can leach out over time harming you, those around you and the environment.

Some of the substances added to plastic to make it useful are chemically similar to the hormones in our bodies that control hunger, weight gain and most other biological processes. Alarmingly, these chemicals, known as endocrine disrupting chemicals or EDCs, are also similar to the hormones which control development of unborn and young children. We get exposed to EDCs through the air we breathe, the food we eat, the water we drink and the things we touch.

In today’s world, there is no way we can completely avoid EDCs but through some smart life choices, we can reduce our exposure.

Almost all plastic contains one or more additives, but not all additives have EDC properties. Regulators work with industry to phase out additives with known EDC properties but replacements are not necessarily entirely safe. Furthermore, we as consumers do not have easy access to information about which additives are in which items and articles and scientists have not yet studied the EDC properties of all potential additives.

Despite this lack of knowledge, there are a number of ways we can reduce our exposure to the potentially harmful substances in plastics. If possible, try using non-plastic items, for example glass or metal beverage containers instead of plastic. Use plastic items in the manner for which they were designed; don’t heat food in plastic containers and avoid using plastic wrap for oily items such as cheese or sausage. Get informed, there are a number of web sites and other resources that can help you to make healthy choices. Be proactive, not buying plastic items sends a small but clear signal to the marketplace that change is needed.

In the campaign, we focus on five areas: clothing, sporting goods, housewares, childrens’ toys and so-called food contact materials. We selected these areas as they are potentially significant sources of EDC exposure and because they are areas where you can take concrete actions to reduce the exposure to you, your family and the environment.

Chemicals used in clothes such as dyes and bleaches can be harmful. Nanosilver and other biocides which kill bacteria and gets rid of odours in clothes, especially in sportswear, may seem attractive but can leach out and harm the environment. Many sporting goods contains large amounts of plastic additives to provide flexibility or durability. These can leach out during use or be absorbed through our skin during exercise. Many plastic items in the home contain additives which are emitted to the air we breathe. Be especially careful with children; old toys often contain more harmful additives than new items. Babies discover the world with their mouths and we should be extra careful with the plastic items they come into contact with. The additives in food contact materials such as plastic containers and plastic wrap can leach out into food or beverages which we later consume.

In addition to these five areas, we take a look at bioplastics. Today, almost all plastic is produced by refining fossil fuels. In some cases, alternatives exist, which are based on plant materials such as bioplastics, or cotton instead of synthetic cloth. These alternatives may be more climate friendly than products made from fossil fuels, but many of them have the same problems as traditional plastics. They can contain EDC additives and may be difficult to recycle.

Change is not always easy but it is possible. With the Plastic Diet campaign, we hope to give you new ideas and knowledge not only to protect your health, but the health of those around you and the environment.