Why Plastic Is Unsafe
Starting from toys to feeding bottles and graduating to water bottles and lunch boxes carried to school and everything else later in life, including packaging of any nature, plastic products have almost become indispensable in our daily life. They are useful, durable, easily available and affordable to the large majority. The exposure to plastic products starts from childhood itself. And most of the products that we use regularly are good quality certified products. It is however essential to know the ill effects, of long-term use of plastics. With the availability of low grade, inferior and cheaper plastic products we may be unknowingly causing damage to our health.
Plastic And Its Effects
We are aware of the environmental concerns of plastic use, including damage to the soil, reducing land fertility, clogging of the water ways including drains and rivers, effect on marine fauna and on livestock too. But it’s also Important to know about the effects of plastics on the human body.
Simply defined, plastic refers to a polymeric synthetic substance which can be easily moulded to be soft and hardened on cooling to produce a durable article,Plastics are generally non-reactive to moisture and air and do not corrode. They are thus useful to store various chemicals including detergents and toxic chemicals in addition to consumables like food and liquids.
However, the chemical additives which are added to plastic products themselves may have health hazards and environmental effects. Some of the plastic products in common use are polythene (non-biodegradable), polypropene, polyvinyl chloride (PVC), teflon (polytetrafluoroethene), PET (polyethylene terephthalate) and polystyrene.
- Direct toxicity of the additives which may be used to stabilise the product like lead, cadmium, mercury etc.
- EDC known as endocrine disrupting compounds or chemicals can create vanous hormonal imbalances especially with cumulative release and exposure. These include eftects on the developmental, reproductive, neurological and immune systems. EDCs induce oestrogen like activity and can disrupt thyroid hormone homeostasis.
- Bisphenol A (BPA) and phthalates are major chemicals which are implicated. The process of leaching where the chemicals migrate to the contents of the container is a major concern. This process may not affect us much with ordinary use at regular temperature but when the products are heated, the amount of chemicals leached accelerates.
- Acidic, salty and fatty foods increase the amount of leaching. BPA exposure has demonstrated some grave health risks in animal studies and in some human studies too.
- Phthalates in plastic chemicals can enter the body through food or personal care products and interfere with the body’s hormonal profile. They are known to inhibit androgens and affect men more than women. Generally PET is used extensively in bottling but concerns of long-term leaching of phthalates especially at higher temperatures are being expressed.
- High density polyethylene (HDPE) is mainly used for bottling food, chemicals and toiletries and also as lining material for groceries and food products. They are generally considered low hazard but some chemicals have oestrogen activity and low dose exposure to toetuses may damage cellular development.
- Plastic monomer compounds are known carcinogen causing mutations in genetic codes leading to immune disruptions. They have cancer inducing properties.
- Some phthalates (DHEP particularly) have adverse effects on the immunological system and airways causing asthma in children.
- Polystyrene is a plastic used extensively for storing food, takeaways and food service units and also foam packaging. Styrene which leaches from polystyrene is a known factor for the development of cancers like leukaemia and lymphoma. It is also a neurotoxin.
Avoiding The Harmful Effects
- Store food, especially cooked food and raw grains, in metal or glass containers.
- Avoid heating, especially microwaving, in plastic non- reusable containers.
- Don’t store fatty foods in plastic boxes.
- Always cool prepared food before transferring to plastic containers.
- Avoid storing water in PET bottles. Use steel containers instead.
- Always prefer good quality food grade materials.
- Never use polystyrene containers.
Some of these hazardous plastics are easily identifiable in the US by a particular code number and consumers can check and make their choices. This stringent labelling and quality check at the manufacturing level is not usually seen in our country.
Long-term studies need to be continued to know the risks of cumulative exposure. It is wise to limit the use of plastics and plastic articles even before their effects are proven by studies. This would not only ensure a healthier future for individuals but also stand to benefit society and the environment as a whole.