Thursday, 7 June 2012

How to be plastic-paranoid with panache


It has revolutionized our world, but perhaps in ways we didn’t expect. Along with tons of mostly microscopic plastic particles accumulating in the oceans, evidence is accumulating that chemicals which leach from plastics are bad for us.

Since I recently had a baby, I became hyper-aware of what I was putting into my body and what that might do to my child, both when he was in the womb and now that I’m breastfeeding him. I knew that there were concerns about not eating too much high-mercury fish, and this lead me to think about other chemicals I might be inadvertently exposed to, like BPA, pthalates, and other plasticizers. Plastics ending up in the oceans is extremely worrisome to me, but this post will be about plastics and human health.

Most plastics leach chemicals into liquids with which they come in contact. Using plastic containers instead of the glass my protocol called for, I unwittingly contaminated my coral samples with hydrocarbons during a lab procedure. Granted, I had filled the container with chloroform, which is generally a substance I avoid drinking, but it brought the message home: glass is inert and safe as long as it isn’t shattered on the floor.

Before you follow me down plastic-paranoia lane, there are a few things to keep in mind.
BPA acts like a hormone. We have hormones in our bodies. Pthalates may be carcinogenic, but it's not yet clear if so. These substances therefore aren’t obviously toxic, like cyanide or lead; their inclusion in food containers isn’t actually some evil plot to poison us all. Plastic is useful, so that’s why it’s everywhere. The National Institutes of Health isn’t even all that worried about BPA in adults, though they do express “some concern” over what exposure to hormone-mimicking substances might do to developing fetuses and babies.

We do have organs to eliminate chemicals. That’s the whole point of the liver, for instance—how else do you think we get rid of all the alcohol we drink? We can, obviously, deal with some amount of chemical ingestion without immediately dying, so some exposure is probably Ok. Mind you, I kind of like saving my liver for alcohol-processing, so if that means reducing plastic intake, so be it.
This bower-bird has switched from using blue flowers and beetles to attract mates, to discarded straws and drink caps.
Now that I’ve shown some amount of scientific level-headedness, let me be honest. Plastic scares the absolute crap out of me. What bothers me most is that one of the chemicals which has been the most studied, BPA, was shown to be possibly dangerous, and removed from many products—which have now replaced it with something else to perform BPA’s function. Those chemicals generally haven’t yet been tested for health effects. These other compounds could possibly be more harmful, but we won’t know until studies are done, by which time we will have been merrily ingesting them for years.


So, if you want to go all precautionary-principle with me, here are some changes I have made to reduce my plastic-chemical-intake:

Drinking and eating
·      Stainless steel or glass refillable water bottles instead of single-use plastic
·      Stainless steel or ceramic reusable coffee cups instead of (plastic lined) paper cups
·      Eat-in on plates rather than take-out in plastic (not so easy with 7-month old)
·      Metal instead of plastic for camping and baby-plates
·      Stainless steel pans instead of non-stick (all of which are now black on the bottom because I suck at not burning shit)
·      For eggs, expensive ceramic-titanium non-stick pan, which is supposed to not flake off into food like cheap non-stick
·      Go for glass, or dry goods—essentially all (plastic-lined) canned or plastic-packaged foods can be made from scratch or found in glass jars
·      Buy fresh, cold milk or soymilk instead of the ultra-heat-treated boxes on the shelf. I have no data on this, but I reckon UHT treatment and extra time sitting around increases leaching.
·      Bring your own cloth bags
Baby stuff
·      Glass and silicone baby bottles
·      Stainless steel and silicone sippy cups
·      There are heaps of toys available not made of plastic. Wooden toys may hurt more when the babies chuck them at one another, but I’m hoping they outgrow the throwing phase. I chose silicone teethers instead of plastic.
·      Cook your own baby food

Not sure if this flip-flop is good for him, but he sure is into it!
p.s. Plastics are made mostly from fossil fuels.

p.p.s. Even plastics made from plants use chemicals to turn the plant products into plastic, and they are typically combined with fossil-fuel-derived hydrocarbons as well.

p.p.p.s. As my mom always reminds me, stress hormones are probably worse than all of this. So try to stay relaxed while eliminating plastic.


  1. In response to a question regarding the safety of silicone:
    What I take from my reading is that silicone is indeed a synthetic polymer, as is plastic, but it is made of chains of Si-O-Si (silica and oxygen), as opposed to organic polymers like H-C-H (hydrogen and carbon). Glass is made of SiO4--quartz (which is what the majority of sand crystals are made of). Si-O bonds are much more difficult to break than H-C, so that is why glass, silicone, and beach sand (the product of breaking down larger rocks and dissolving away many other less robust minerals) are so resistant. So, the idea with silicone is that once it's made, it's really difficult to break down unless melted above ~300C.

  2. Jessica -
    thanks for the great post! Would you mind if I used your bower image for the background of my personal blog site?
    Ryan Donegan

    1. Hi Ryan, Sure! Thanks for asking. This photo was taken at the Wollongong Botanical Gardens. It's not greatly in focus when zoomed in, but go ahead and use it if you'd like!

    2. Great! Thanks Jessica. Here's my URL, if you want to see how your photo appears there:
      But I warn you, the content is under major construction!!

  3. I really appreciate this post, there are several reasons I'm anti-plastic, aside from being a marine biologist who is concerned about the oceans. You've really hit the nail on the head for other reasons to be concerned about plastics, thank you for sharing.

    I published a study last year that found that sea turtles are (unsurprisingly) ingesting a lot of plastics, and we really don't know what the sublethal effects of plastic debris ingestion are for most marine species...but it seems that it is likely these plastic toxins can move throughout the food web, potentially ending up on our plates. Yikes.

    I summarized my paper on this to share with a broader audience, and was sure to include that point - as I think it is really important we understand that we are not only the cause of the problem, but that it could directly impact our health as well. I like to always point out too, that we can all be part of the solution!

    Here's a link to my paper summary:

    1. Thank you for this comment, and the link to your blog post! Shocking stuff. The more I learn, the more worried I get...