Monday, November 28, 2011

Plastic Fantastic (Not!)

Amid frenzied media reports of "deadly chemicals" in Thanksgiving foods, a new study showing that eating canned soup sharply raises concentrations of bisphenol-A in the body, and the gnashing of teeth by bloggers worried by the health risks of sous-vide cooking, health-conscious households everywhere are reverberating with the dull "thud-plunk-plop" of plastic kitchenware being flung into garbage pails. Or at least, mine is.

Having written about the dangers of kitchen plastics here, I recently decided to rid myself of plastic bowls, storage tubs and utensils and invest in safer alternatives. Plastic mixing bowls have been replaced with stainless steel; plastic spatulas and chopping boards ceded their place to bamboo substitutes (much more attractive, incidentally); and my plastic electric kettle (deviously posing as a stainless steel kettle which, on closer examination, revealed a plastic inner casing) was replaced by a stainless steel stove-top kettle - complete with whistle for full-blown retro appeal!

Admittedly, plastics probably don't pose the biggest health risk of them all. Environmental pollutants, dangerous microorganisms, radiation, or getting knocked off your bicycle on your way to work pose greater risks to your health than your plastic lunch box. But unlike these factors -- which are virtually impossible for us to influence -- there are many other health hazards (in particular with regard to cancer risk) that we can and should avoid: smoking, obesity, a sedentary lifestyle, junk food. And the plastics that come in contact with our food.

Just to recap: the vast majority of plastics currently used in food processing -- whether it's in the linings of cans, plastic food wrap and sandwich bags, disposable water bottles, silicone cake moulds and implements, Tetrapak containers, airtight food storage containers, convenience-food packaging or kitchen appliances (espresso makers, kettles, water filters, etc.) -- contain chemical compounds that leach into the foods we eat, and which, once ingested, can have adverse health effects.

In a recent US-government funded investigation, a research team from Texas found that 92% of all kitchen plastics tested leached these compounds into food they came into contact with, even when they were not being stressed (e.g. exposed to heat or light). Under stress, some 98% of plastics gave off these compounds. The widely publicized bisphenol-A is one such chemical, but there are many others used in plastics manufacturing whose adverse health effects may be even more powerful than those of BPA.

These compounds, known collectively as "xenoestrogens" (i.e. "foreign" estrogens which mimic those produced naturally in the human body), are being linked to a growing number of health problems, such as early puberty in females, reduced sperm counts, altered functions of reproductive organs, obesity, altered sex-specific behaviors, and increased rates of some breast, ovarian, testicular, and prostate cancers. They are thought to be particularly dangerous to fetuses, infants and children, but may affect adults too. Particularly worryingly to cancer patients, BPA can block the effects of certain chemotherapy drugs.

Defenders of plastics, notably the chemical and food-packaging industries, argue that there is no definitive proof that BPA and other estrogenic chemicals have adverse effects. But others believe that since test tube research, animal experiments and human observation studies indicate clear risks, the "precautionary principle" (i.e. "suspect until proven innocent") should prevail -- especially since estrogen-leaching plastics are everywhere, from soda cans to cash-register receipts.

"As long ago as the 1920s, people referred to cigarettes as "cancer sticks"," says Dr. Stuart Yaniger, co-author of the Texas study and a plastics industry veteran. He is responsible for research and development at PlastiPure, a company that researches endocrine disruptors and develops safer plastic alternatives for packaging manufacturers. "It took another 50 years until regulators finally took action to protect people's health."

In the case of estrogenic plastics, he says, it's best not to wait until the scientists make up their minds. "We know the sources of these chemicals, and avoiding them isn't difficult or expensive, so while the epidemiologists and toxicologists continue debating their possible risks, the plastics industry should address this now," Yaniger says.

His proposed solution lies in reformulating plastics in such a way that they no longer contain estrogenic compounds. Tetrapak-style packaging, for one, requires such small changes that it would be "trivial" to reformulate, he says. Others items that could easily and inexpensively be reformulated include plastic bags, food wrap, food storage containers, pouches, baby bottles, sippy cups and silicone kitchenware, he says.

Others again, like the plastic resins used to line the insides of food cans, may take longer and be more expensive to reformulate due to the technical challenge of devising a coating that will reliably stick to metal throughout the forming process, never pinhole or flake off, withstand the heat of canning, and be non-reactive with a wide range of foods. Sadly, one of the biggest hurdles to reformulating these is the extra two cents per can that the newer liners represent, says Yaniger.

Ultimately, "packaging manufacturers will grumble, but if they see that consumers and retailers want estrogen-free plastics, they will do the right thing," he predicts. Indeed, when mass-retailer Wal-Mart realized that mothers were no longer buying baby bottles containing BPA, it replaced them in 2008 with BPA-free bottles -- long before legislators got involved.

"Consumers are always the primary drivers for this sort of thing," says Yaniger. "If they make a lot of noise about spending money elsewhere, they will be heard - and quickly, too."

To help you get heard, I have drafted the following letter (based on a similar document by the Breast Cancer Fund) that you can adapt and send to food manufacturers, packaging producers, your Congressman or MP, supermarkets and health-food shops (alas, many health-food brands also use estrogenic packaging materials).

Dear Consumer Affairs Representative / Congressman / Member of Parliament / Supermarket Manager,

As a consumer [and parent of young children - where applicable] I am very concerned about estrogen-like compounds in the plastics that come into contact with the food we eat.

Estrogenic compounds, such as bisphenol-A (BPA), are linked to an a wide range of health problems, such as early puberty in females, reduced sperm counts, altered functions of reproductive organs, obesity, and increased rates of some breast, ovarian, testicular, and prostate cancers. Babies and young children are particularly susceptible to the effects of these chemicals.

I am concerned that there are estrogen-like compounds in the packaged food products [specify: cans, plastic tubs, water bottles, pouches, bags or other] that your company sells. Canned foods marketed to children are particularly problematic.

My health and the health of young children are important to me, so I don't want to purchase food packaged with BPA and similar compounds.

Some food companies, such as Eden Organics and Vital Choice, are already reformulating their packaging to remove these compounds. Please can I ask you to undertake every effort to do so too, and provide safe food that we can feed our children and ourselves?

I look forward to hearing how, and when, you will begin addressing this pressing issue.

Alternatives to plastics

A second line of defense against estrogenic plastics that I have begun to adopt is to change the way you consume food. This can be done in many ways (some of which I discussed in my previous blog post), for example:
  • Cooking from scratch rather than buying food in tins or plastic packages (e.g. oven-roasted mashed pumpkin makes an even tastier Thanksgiving pie than canned pumpkin!
  • Buying fresh food (e.g. from vegetable stores, CSA schemes, farmers' markets) and using it up within two to three days, rather than buying and storing food that's packed in plasticover longer periods
  • Using a freezer for long-term food storage, reducing the need for plastic-lined tins (frozen vegetables and fruits are generally more flavorful and nutritious than canned ones anyway)
  • Replacing plastic storage containers with glass or stainless steel
  • Canning your own food: I preserve tomatoes and peaches in glass jars (much tastier than store-bought canned equivalents) and have even tried my hand at canned fish (salmon with lemon, dill and olive oil - surprisingly tasty). When canning food, however, be careful to follow reliable instructions to avoid poisoning your family with dangerous bacteria. I have used this excellent book about food-preserving.
Sorry, I have to go -- my kettle is whistling! But if you can think of more ways of cutting back on kitchen plastics, why not share them in the comments section below ?

Thursday, November 3, 2011

Making your home a plastic-free zone

Even nutritionists have dietary blind spots; mine was plastics.

Having written about them extensively here and in my book, I'd been very careful to avoid food containers, bottles and cans containing bisphenol-a (BPA), a man-made chemical thought to disrupt the body's natural hormone balance.

But despite my husband's long-time nagging to make our kitchen a "plastic-free-zone," I had been reluctant to throw out faithful kitchen companions that I believed to be BPA-free - and therefore harmless - like my mixing bowls, food storage boxes, chopping boards and gaily colored drinking cups. A combination of frugality and laziness prevented me from discarding what seemed like perfectly good kitchen equipment and spending many hours and dollars replacing it all.

That is, until my husband forwarded me this eye-opening article by Californian acupuncturist Chris Kresser about a study which found that even BPA-free plastics contain chemicals with estrogenic activity.

I realise now that "BPA-free" doesn't mean free from endocrine disruptors. Far from it: in fact, the study shows that in some cases, the estrogenic activity from BPA-free plastics was stronger than that of BPA!

Chemicals that have estrogenic activity - i.e. that mimic the body's own estrogens - are associated with a range of health problems: early puberty in females, reduced sperm counts, altered functions of reproductive organs, obesity, altered sex-specific behaviors, and increased rates of some breast, ovarian, testicular, and prostate cancers.

One study found that even at weak concentrations, BPA can block the effects of several commonly used chemotherapy agents on breast cancer cells. And while BPA has been studied mostly in animals, only last month two human studies linked BPA to behavior problems in girls and diabetes in adults.

For the BPA-free plastics study, researchers bought 455 plastic products such as deli containers, plastic bags, food storage boxes, baby bottle components and food wraps from large retailers like Wal-Mart, Whole Foods, Trader Joe's or Target. Then they put the plastics in contact with liquids that contain the sorts of chemicals found in food and drinks and subjected them to stresses that mimic normal use, like UV light (sunlight), microwaving or moist heat (like boiling or dishwashing).

The results are shocking: over 90 per cent of the products leached estrogenic chemicals before they were even stressed, and after being stressed almost all of the products showed estrogenic activity.

Worryingly, it's impossible to know which type of plastic product may have stronger estrogenic activity than any other, because the chemical composition of commercially available plastics is their  manufacturers' secret. A single part of any plastic product may consist of 5-30 chemicals, and an item containing many parts (e.g., a baby bottle) may comprise more than 100 chemicals, almost all of which can leach from the product, especially when stressed.

According to the study's authors there are plastics that do not exhibit estrogenic activity, even when stressed, wand hich could be produced at minimal additional cost. Until these become commercially available, however, I suggest we declare our homes plastic-free zones.

Reducing our use of plastic has other benefits than "just" health. For one, after the initial outlay for non-plastic replacements, you will probably save money, for instance by carrying filtered water in a stainless-steel bottle rather than buying expensive bottled water, or preparing food from scratch (generally cheaper than packaged foods).

You will also reduce the amount of plastic garbage whose disposal is causing massive environmental problems. You may even discover the esthetic and tactile pleasure of handling time-honored natural materials like wood, earthenware, glass and cotton. What better way to honor the fresh, unprocessed foods carefully grown by local farmers than to prepare and serve them in natural materials?

This doesn't mean you can never touch plastic again. If you're hiking on a sunny day and forgot to bring your stainless-steel or glass bottle, it's better to drink water from a plastic bottle rather than risk dehydration!

At home, however, there are many small ways in which we can shift from plastic to more chemically inert materials. For instance:
  • Instead of buying food that's tightly packaged in plastic (e.g. cheese or cold cuts from a supermarket chiller cabinet), buy it loose (e.g. at a deli counter, loosely wrapped in paper) and store in glass or stainless steel containers at home. Use these also for leftovers or fresh foods stored in the fridge and the freezer.
  • Instead of buying food in tins (whose lining can contain BPA or similar compounds), eat fresh food or can it yourself in glass jars. The lids of many glass jars are also lined with plastic, so choose a brand that doesn't have these (e.g. Weck). These also make attractive storage containers for dry foods (e.g. beans, nuts, rice) in cupboards and on shelves (their tight seals keep out food mites!).
  • Babies should drink from glass bottles; toddlers can use stainless steel sippy cups.
  • Drink filtered water from stainless-steel bottles instead of plastic ones (especially if these have been exposed to sunlight). Avoid drinks in cans, which are lined with plastic resins.
  • Use ceramic, glass or metal bowls to prepare or serve food. This is especially important if you use a microwave oven. For cooking, use stainless steel or cast iron rather than pans covered with non-stick coatings.
  • Use wooden or stainless steel cooking implements (spoons, spatulas, strainers etc) instead of plastics.
  • At the dining table, use china or earthenware plates, and pitchers and glasses made of glass, not plastic.
  • Instead of a plastic water kettle, use an old-fashioned enamel or stainless steel stove-top kettle.
  • Instead of using automatic espresso machines, opt for a stainless steel stovetop espresso maker. If you make drip-filtered coffee, use paper filters in a ceramic, glass or stainless steel filter holder, rather than plastic equivalents.
Three years ago Beth Terry started a blog, My Plastic-Free Life, in which she charts her progress towards de-plasticising her life, and offers 95 simple suggestions (to date) for ways to reduce plastic in our lives. If you can think of other ways of cutting back on plastic, please post a comment with your suggestions.