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Plastics: how safe for our health are they?

Lifestyle

Hello CICLO readers! This is Melisa bringing you a new blog post today. But today’s blog post is a little different than the ones I have written so far. For this post, I wanted to take the time to introduce all of the different types of plastics that we use on a daily basis and their adverse health effects. I posted on our Instagram about an interesting article online from The National Geographic that I read recently. It’s titled, “Why ‘BPA Free’ May Not Mean a Plastic Product is Safe” (click here to read the article). You guys seemed to be interested in learning more about the different types of plastic and what they mean to our health. So as requested, here is this new post dedicated to share some useful and thought-worthy information about plastics.

Not all plastics are created equal

plastic_health_effects_PETbottles

First, I would like to introduce what type of plastics are out there and how we can identify them, if they are properly labeled (which in most cases they aren’t). When we become more aware of what kind of plastics we are using on a daily basis, then we can begin to make better choices as consumers both for the sake of our health and our environment. Plastics can be easily categorized into 7 different groups described below:

#1: Polyethylene terephthalate (PET)

PET is lightweight, thin, transparent and a good barrier against gas and moisture. This type of plastic (as all of you may already know) are used most commonly in soft drink containers. They can also be found in oil and dressing bottles and other packaged products. In Japan, this type of plastic is the highest recycled (almost 85% of PET is recycled). One fun fact about PET is that if you place it in salt water, it will quickly sink to the bottom. This is an easy way to identify it, if it’s not readily labeled.

#2: High-density polyethylene (HDPE)

Polyethylene is another highly used plastic around the world. HDPE is made to be more strong, resistant and durable against heat or freezing. It is used for milk containers, detergents bottles, refrigerators, toys and some types of plastic bags. HDPE is generally easy to recycle but unlike PET, there is no effective collection and recycling system in place to properly recycle it in Japan (in the U.S. the recycling percentage of HDPE is 30-35%).

#3: Polyvinyl Chloride (PVC)

PVC is soft, flexible and it is used in plastic food wrap, cosmetic containers, electrical tape, plumbing pipes and garden hoses. It was previously being used for children and pet toys but due to health hazards, a lot of these PVC items have been discontinued. However, their usage is still popular because of their cost-effective and versatile use. Products made using PVC plastic are not recyclable but some can be re-purposed for industrial usage.

#4: Low-density polyethylene (LDPE)

LDPE is a more soft, flexible and transparent version of polyethylene. They are readily used in packaging such as shrink wraps or in squeezable bottles, food packaging or plastic grocery bags. LDPE can be recycled but most products are not due to the lack of a proper recycling system put in place.

#5: Polypropylene (PP)

Polypropylene is strong, semi-transparent, resistant to high heat and lightweight. It can be seen used in plastic cereal bags, bottle tops, yogurt containers, chip bags and straws. Polypropylene is recyclable like other plastic mentioned before, but there is no efficient recycle program set in place for these types of plastics in Japan.  

#6: Polystyrene (PS)

Polystyrene is cheap, lightweight and easily produced for a variety of uses. It’s found used in disposable drinking cups and plates and take-out food containers, but slowly this use is diminishing due to its relation to releasing a possible carcinogen in food. It can also be seen as rigid foam insulation and in packaging of items. Recycling is either not readily accessible or very limited for polystyrene and most of it ends up in landfills or break up into smaller pieces finding their way to the ocean.

#7: All Other Types of Plastics (Polycarbonate, PLA, ect.)

This category of plastics includes types of plastics that cannot be placed into the main 6 categories. It mainly consists of polycarbonate which is made of BPA (Bisphenol A) which is hazardous for our health. Moreover, the more recent types of plastics called “bioplastics” (plastic made partially with bio-based materials like corn starch, sugar cane, ect.) are also part of this category. There is no standardized recycling protocols for this category of plastics however this can be misleading for bioplastics such as PLA (polylactic acid) which state they can be composted. However, not all PLA bioplastics are created equal and based on their chemical composition, their composting requirements vary. Read more about an example of PLA bioplastic products on our post about Biofase from Mexico, products produced by avocado seeds!

Possible plastic related health effects?

Now that you know which plastics are which and in what products they are usually used in, I would like to introduce some of the stated possible health effects of using these plastics. From what I have been reading (please look at the very bottom of the post for my cited sources), the most dangerous types of plastics are #3 (PVC), #6 (PS), #7 (Others) and surprisingly #1 (PET) as well and below is why.

Something to note about PET is that it should be thought more of as a single-use product. Repeated use of PET bottles, especially under high temperatures, increases bacterial growth and the leaching of chemicals such as DEHA and DEHP (possible suspected human carcinogens) which are used as plasticizers (increases flexibility) in the plastic production process. However, scientific studies show that the amount released of DEHA/DEHP is well under the World Health Organization (WHO) Standards for drinking water quality. Other studies show that PET can also release a chemical which is known as antimony (another possible carcinogen). Antimony can be released over long periods of time if in contact with liquids. This is especially more true when exposed to high temperatures.

Whether one chemical is released over the other, no clear evidence is given, but what I would like to take into consideration is that from the production of our bottled water until it reaches our hands, we have no way of knowing exactly how or where it was stored. Even though some organizations like the FDA or WHO have standardized safety level recommendations for these chemicals in our food products, I think throughout our lifetime as we increase our exposure to these carcinogens our risks increases. So, what should you take out of this information? Bring your own water bottles wherever you go to reduce your usage of PET bottles and don’t ever refill or reuse a PET bottle (this will increase the chances of these chemicals leaching into your drink).

plastic_health_effects_wrap_PVC

As for PCV, PS and other plastics, I would recommend to just stay away from these in food products. They leak several types of carcinogens used as plasticizers such as styrene, thalates or endocrine-like substances like BPA which can disrupt normal reproductive function especially in pregnant and young children. I found it really scary that plastic food wrap is made out of PVC (I found some plastic wrap still left in my kitchen and confirmed this by reading the ingredients labeled ポリ塩化ビニリデン or PVC)! I know sometimes I would heat something wrapped in plastic wrap in my microwave and now thinking back to that time, I just cringe at the fact that I did not know what kind of chemicals were leaching into my food.

plastic_health_effects_wrap_PVC_back_close

Lastly, in terms of the most “safe” plastics for our health include, LDPE, HDPE, PE and PP. All of these types of plastics can be considered one of the safest because they do not contain any harmful chemicals such as BPA or thalates. So, when necessary try to opt for these plastics instead.

Take home message about plastics and their impact on our lives

plastic_health_effects_reusable_glassbottles

Plastics have been both a blessing and a curse for humankind. They have revolutionized the way we have designed and created different products in our everyday life. From our clothes, to our lunch boxes to our cars and technology, all of us have been a consumer of plastic throughout our lifetime. However, the manner in which plastic has been introduced to consumers and how industries themselves have not taken full responsibility in the proper use and disposal of their items has now become the greatest threat to the future of our planet. We cannot undo the damage that has already been done, but we can definitely become more knowledgeable and then act to reduce, educate and make the necessary changes towards a plastic-free lifestyle (like using glass bottles as an alternative). I hope you learned something new about the different types of plastics! If you have any more questions or comments about this topic please leave a comment below. I have left the links to all of my resources below, feel free to do some research on your own as well. I also suggest reading “Life Without Plastic” written by a Canadian couple, Chantal Plamondon and Jay Sinha. They wrote an excellent book describing their journey to living a plastic-free life and what helped them come to the conclusion that a life without plastic is a much healthier alternative. I will link the book down below. See you next time!

 

  1. Rustagi, Neeti, et al. “Public Health Impact of Plastics: An Overview.” Indian Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine, Medknow Publications & Media Pvt Ltd, 2011, www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3299092/.
  2. Toxic Effects of Plastic on Human Health and Environment www.researchgate.net/publication/321906991_Toxic_effects_of_plastic_on_human_health_and_environment_A_consequences_of_health_risk_assessment_in_Bangladesh.
  3. “Adverse Health Effects of Plastics.” Ecology Center, ecologycenter.org/factsheets/adverse-health-effects-of-plastics/.
  4. Cowan, Shannon. “Plastics by the Numbers.” Eartheasy Guides & Articles, learn.eartheasy.com/articles/plastics-by-the-numbers/
  5. Leaching of DEHA and DEHP from PET Bottles to Water. www.sodis.ch/news/archiv/news_documents/deha_dehp_indien.pdf.
  6. “Plastic Love: Japan’s Prodigious Usage and Recycling of PET Bottles.” Nippon.com, 4 Mar. 2019, www.nippon.com/en/japan-data/h00401/plastic-love-japan’s-prodigious-usage-and-recycling-of-pet-bottles.html.
  7. Toxic Effects of Plastic on Human Health and Environment, www.researchgate.net/publication/321906991_Toxic_effects_of_plastic_on_human_health_and_environment_A_consequences_of_health_risk_assessment_in_Bangladesh.
  1. Alfonso A.

    Hola , excelente trabajo de investigacion y contribución a la difusión de este gran problema de contaminación al medio ambiente y a nosotros mismos, esperamos que así como tú más gente empiece a tomar conciencia de este y muchos otros problemas que tenemos de contaminación y empecemos a cambiar nuestra naturaleza autodestructiva antes de que sea demasiado tarde. Felicidades y sigue adelante.

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