Plastics in the Kitchen: Are They Safe?

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Plastics are widely used in the kitchen, from containers for leftovers to dishware, cutlery, baby bottles, even the coating inside canned foods. But recent research has shown that the chemical bisphenol A (BPA) and phthalates commonly found in many plastics, can leach into food and pose potential health risks.

In January 2010, the Food and Drug Administration announced it had some concern about the potential effects of BPA on the brain, behavior, and prostate gland in fetuses, infants, and young children,” and would carry out new, in-depth studies to clarify BPA’s potential risks.

Remember a few years ago when plastic reusable water bottles suddenly went out of fashion? This was a result of concerns raised by the use of certain plastics as food containers. Here we hope to give you an overview of the current research and recommendations so that you can make informed decisions about what you use in your kitchen.

BPA has been a key component in many plastics since its discovery in 1891. BPA is used to make a hard, clear plastic called polycarbonate, which is used in plastic items from baby bottles to reusable water bottles. BPA is also used in epoxy resins in the protective linings in cans for food and beverages. BPA makes plastics transparent, shatterproof, and heat resistant. The FDA originally approved these food-related uses of BPAs in the 1960s. Once these BPA-containing plastics contact food or liquids, the BPA slowly leaches out. If the food or drink is hot, the BPA migrates to the food 55 times faster than at room temperature, according to a 2008 University of Cincinnati study.

First widely used in the 1930s, phthalates are a component of some polyvinyl chloride (PVC) plastics used to make food containers and plastic food wrap. They show up in perfume, eye shadow, moisturizer, nail polish, liquid soap, and hair spray, as well as many other products outside the kitchen and bathroom.  The phthalates do not bond to the PVC plastic, and therefore leach into whatever the container or wrap holds, particularly at higher temperatures or from used (scratched and worn) containers.

The health concerns from ingesting BPA and phthalates are potentially serious. Both are in a class of chemicals known as endocrine disrupters, which are chemicals that may disrupt the body’s endocrine system by mimicking natural hormones. A number of studies indicate that long-term, low-level exposure to BPA causes human health problems. In rodents, BPA has been associated with early sexual maturation, altered behavior, and effects on prostate and mammary glands. According to a 2010 paper published in the scientific journal Environmental Science and Technology, BPA is associated with cardiovascular disease, diabetes, and male sexual dysfunction in humans, with food as a major source of exposure. Phthalates affect the size and function of male genitals in newborns, and appear to be associated with early puberty in girls. They are carcinogenic in rodents. The authors reported that BPA is thought to be present in 95 percent of the U.S. population, with higher levels in infants and children than in adults.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control (CDC) found traces of BPA and phthalates in nearly all of the urine samples it collected in 2004 as part of its National Report on Human Exposure to Environmental Chemicals, an effort to gauge the prevalence of various chemicals in the human body.

In 2008, Canada declared BPA “toxic” and banned imports of baby bottles containing the chemical. The European Union is slated to ban the manufacturing of baby bottles with BPA in 2011. Many U.S. manufacturers of baby bottles and feeding cups have already begun voluntarily removing BPA from their products.


To reduce potential leaching of BPA and phthalates from plastic containers into your food, follow these tips:

*Don’t microwave: Because storing and heating foods in BPA or phthalate-containing plastics causes the most chemical leaching, do not microwave food in plastic containers or plastic wrap.

*Wash by hand: the high heat in dishwashers may encourage leaching; wash them by hand.

*Scratches: recycle scratched and worn plastic containers. Scratches may lead to more leaching.

*Switch to glass containers: Consider using microwave-grade glass containers for warming and storing food.

*Cool foods only: Don’t place hot food or hot beverages in plastic containers. A plastic container used to hold a sandwich or room-temperature snack for a few hours poses little risk, especially if you monitor the type of plastic (see below).

*Check the label: look for product labels that state “phthalate-free” or “BPA-free,” especially when buying children’s toys and water bottles. When purchasing plastic food containers or water bottles, look at plastic recycling codesCodes 1, 2, 4, and 5 refer to plastics that do not usually contain BPA or phthalate plasticizers. Code 1 PETE, used for one-use water bottles, do not leach but should not be refilled and reused. Codes 3 and 6 identify plastics that do contain BPA. Code 7 includes polycarbonate, a BPA-containing plastic to avoid, as well as other plastics that may be safe.

- Rebecca Taggart


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