How to Avoid BPA and Phthalates in Food and Various Household Products

by Diane, M.P.H, M.S.

Convenient plastic products can be harmful to your family’s health. Plastics commonly used to make food storage containers can often leach hormone-disrupting chemicals into food and drinks. If you are a parent of a young child or are expecting a baby, then you need to know about the dangers of such chemicals.”
Bisphenol-A (commonly known as BPA) and phthalates (called “everywhere chemicals” because they are so common) are used in making countless plastic products that we see and use everyday. This includes children’s items, such as baby bottles, sippy cups, pacifiers, teethers and toys.

BPA is used in hard, clear plastic, whereas phthalates help make plastic flexible. It is believed that both BPA and phthalates can leach from plastic into food, liquid, and directly into the mouths of children while sucking on pacifiers or teethers.
Growing scientific evidence suggests that BPA and phthalates may be associated with a various health issues, including hormonal and developmental problems. Infants and young children, who are vulnerable during early developmental years, are likely to be at the greatest risk from exposure to these chemicals.

What is BPA?

BPA is a chemical often used to make polycarbonate plastic, a shatter-resistant and clear material used in products ranging from hard plastic bottles, eyeglasses, and sports safety equipment. BPA is also found in baby bottles, sippy cups, teethers, water bottles, food storage containers, and the epoxy lining of many food and beverage cans. It has been associated with effects on the developing brain, and breast and prostate cancer in laboratory studies.

What are Phthalates?

Pronounced “THAL-ates,” phthalates are chemicals used to make plastic soft and flexible. They are often found in plastic wrap, car interiors, shower curtains, deodorant, cosmetics, medical devices, children’s products like toys, rattles, teethers, rubber ducks, bath books, baby shampoo, soap and lotion. There are many types of phthalates, among them DBP (di-n-butyl phthalate), DEP (diethyl phthalate), DEHP (di-(2-ethylhexyl) phthalate or bis (2-ethylhexyl) phthalate), BzBP (benzylbutyl phthalate), and DMP (dimethyl phthalate), terms usually not listed on most labels. DEHP has been shown to affect male reproductive development, sperm quality, and male hormone levels in laboratory and human studies.

Where Are Phthalates Used?

Phthalates are commonly found in plastic food and beverage containers, but their presence extends far beyond that. About a billion pounds of phthalates are produced every year, and their use is so widespread that they are nearly impossible to avoid entirely. About 95 percent of us have detectable levels of phthalates in our urine. Phthalates are found in perfume, hair spray, deodorant, almost anything fragranced (from shampoo to air fresheners to laundry detergent), nail polish, insect repellent, carpeting, vinyl flooring, the coating on wires and cables, shower curtains, raincoats, plastic toys, and your car’s steering wheel, dashboard, and gearshift. Even the smell of a new car is usually due to phthalates. Medical devices often contain phthalates, in order to make IV drip bags and tubes soft, thus enabling some DEHP to be pumped directly into the bloodstream of patients. Most plastic sex toys are softened with phthalates.

Phthalates are found in our food and water, too. They are in dairy products, possibly from the plastic tubing used to milk cows. They are in meats and cheeses since some phthalates are attracted to fat, although it’s not entirely clear how they are getting in to begin with. Phthalates have been found in tap water tainted by industrial waste, as well as, pesticides sprayed on conventional fruits and vegetables.

Why worry about BPA and Phthalates?

BPA can leach from plastic containers into foods and beverages, especially when they are heated, or used for long periods of time. Also, when kids put toys, teethers, and other products that contain phthalates in their mouths, the chemical may leach from the product to the child.
Animal studies have shown that exposure to BPA can have developmental effects. There are no studies that prove that BPA is associated with adverse effects in human development. However, because developmental effects in animals occur at BPA exposures close to those experienced by some people, the possibility that BPA may alter human development cannot be dismissed. In laboratory animals, exposure to high levels of BPA has been associated with adverse effects on reproduction. Some human studies suggest a possible effect of BPA on reproductive hormones, especially in men exposed to high levels in the workplace, but human data are not sufficient to determine if BPA adversely affects reproduction.

Animal studies have associated phthalate exposure with adverse effects on the liver, kidney, male and female reproductive system, especially when exposures occur to the developing organism. Animals exposed to phthalates in the mother’s womb have shown decreased sperm activity and concentration, early puberty in females, and testicular cancer. Possible reproductive, developmental and other effects of phthalates in humans are the subject of much ongoing research. Phthalates have been detected in humans, but associations between the levels of phthalates found and effects in humans is currently inconclusive.

To minimize exposure to BPA and Phthalates:

  • Fresh is best: BPA and phthalates can migrate from the linings of cans and plastic packaging into food and drinks. While it’s not practical to avoid food packaging altogether, opt for fresh or frozen, instead of canned food, as much as possible.
  • Prepare your meals at home: Studies have shown that people who eat more meals prepared outside the home have higher levels of BPA. To reduce your exposure, consider cooking more meals at home with fresh ingredients. When you do eat out, choose restaurants that use fresh ingredients.
  • Eat organic produce, meat, and dairy. Phthalates are used in pesticides and also found in sewage sludge that is used in conventional agriculture. Neither is permitted on certified organic produce, and pesticide- treated animal feeds are not allowed in organic meat and dairy production.
  • Store it safe: Food and drinks stored in plastic can collect chemicals from the containers, especially if the foods are fatty or acidic. Try to store leftovers in glass or stainless steel, instead of plastic.
  • Don’t microwave in plastic: Warmer temperatures increase the rate of chemicals leaching into food anddrinks. So use heat-resistant glass or ceramic containers when you microwave, or heat your food on the stove. The label “microwave safe” means safety for the container, not your health.
  • Brew the old-fashioned way: Automatic coffee makers may have BPA and phthalates in their plastic containers and tubing. When you brew coffee, consider using a stainless steel percolator or French press to avoid BPA.
  • Use refillable glass, porcelain and stainless-steel containers: for all food and beverages, particularly for hot foods and liquids.
  • When you have something plastic, look at the little triangle on the bottom of the container: Avoid plastic containers marked with a 1 or a 7. Instead choose those marked with a 2, 4, or 5 will reduce the likelihood of exposure to BPA and phthalates.
  • Glass baby bottles are recommended for babies who don’t yet feed themselves.
  • For bottle feeding, since latex rubber nipples may contain phthalates, use of silicone nipples may reducephthalate exposure.
  • Do not use plastic containers in microwaves.
  • Avoid vinyl toys, perfumed shampoo and lotion: Choose fragrance-free products whenever possible.
  • Use baby bottles, food containers, teethers, shampoo, lotions, and other children’s items that are “BPA-free” and/or “phthalate-free.” Always read the package label or check with the manufacturer to know what you are bringing into your home.
  • Avoid fragrance and scented products: Unfortunately, you will very rarely see phthalates listed on a product label. Luckily, there are clues. When it comes to cosmetics, the word “fragrance” or “parfum” on a label almost always means phthalates. What you want to see are claims like “no synthetic fragrance” or “scented with only essential oils” or “phthalate-free.” And always use only natural air fresheners.
  • Plastic products with recycling codes 3 and 7 may contain phthalates or BPA. Look for plastic with recycling codes 1, 2, or 5.
  • Avoid hand-me-down plastic toys. Although several types of phthalates are now banned from children’s toys, teethers, bottles, and feeding products, these laws only took place in 2009, so anything made of soft plastic that was manufactured before that probably contains phthalates (think rubber duckies, not Legos).
  • Avoid plastic whenever possible, and never heat your food in plastic: Foods that are higher in fat — meats and cheeses, for instance — are particularly prone to chemical leaching. Even BPA or phthalate-free plastic may contain harmful chemicals. Opt for glass food storage containers, and choose bottles and sippy and snack cups that are mostly stainless steel, silicone, or glass.
  • Invest in a water filter. Granular activated carbon filters should remove DEHP, which is the type of phthalate used in water pipes. Unfortunately, some sources claim that a percentage of water may pass through the carbon without filtration. A nano-filtration system is more expensive but possibly more reliable way to filter out phthalates.
  • Take action: While we can take steps to reduce our own exposure, it’s important to join with others to demand healthier food packaging and products for everyone.

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