Harmful everyday product we’re using

 

Plastic is everywhere.

We use it to carry our food, eat with, we drink out of it, buy our cosmetics in it and even cook with it.

While Australians have embraced plastic and its many uses, there is growing concern about what it's actually doing to our bodies.

News.com.au has launched its series What a Waste to coincide with Planet Ark's National Recycling Week, highlighting the impact single-use plastics have on the environment and encouraging readers to reduce their personal waste.

In September, there was a warning about the use of plastic kitchen utensils.

The German Federal Institute for Risk Assessment, which advises the German Government on issues related to product, chemical and food safety, released an advisory that recommended people limit the exposure of their polyamide utensils when dealing with hot food.

It said components called oligomers from plastic cooking spoons, spatulas and whisks could migrate from into food and be eaten.

While these utensils have not been proven to have negative health impacts on humans, the organisation said at high doses the compounds could cause adverse effects in the liver and thyroid.

It recommended consumers keep their utensil's contact with food as brief as possible, especially at high temperatures above 70C.

There is also growing evidence on the impact of compounds found in plastics on fertility.

Dr Mark Green is a lecturer in reproductive biology and is studying the impacts of certain chemicals on people's fertility.

He told news.com.au that chemicals like Bisphenol A (BPA), which is used to make some types of plastics, is one of the most studied endocrine disrupting substances.

BPA can be found in takeaway containers, plastic bottles, the lining of takeaway coffee cups as well as polycarbonate (hard) plastics such as baby bottles.

It's also used in the lining of cans to stop the food coming into contact with the metal, and is even found on the shiny coating of cash register receipts.

BPA can be found in water bottles, the lining of takeaway coffee cups and on the shiny coating of cash register receipts.
BPA can be found in water bottles, the lining of takeaway coffee cups and on the shiny coating of cash register receipts.

BPA is so common, about 95 per cent of people have detectable levels in their urine.

Food Standards Australia New Zealand (FSANZ) has decided it does not pose a significant human health risk for any age group, despite finding BPA at very low concentrations in some foodstuffs.

Other countries have taken a different stance. France has banned it and the European Union has removed its use in baby bottles.

The Federal Government did announce a voluntary phase-out of baby bottles containing BPA in 2010.

Dr Green said scientists had so far found a "strong correlation" between BPA and obesity, and recent research also suggests it increases people's risk of developing type 2 diabetes.

There's also evidence in fertility clinics that it may affects the number of eggs a woman produces, and there's an increasing link to miscarriage.

Drinking water out of a plastic bottle may not be as healthy as you think.
Drinking water out of a plastic bottle may not be as healthy as you think.

Compounds such as BPA are considered endocrine disrupters and can "mimic" oestrogen, which impacts people's hormones.

"We have gained a lot of knowledge and data on the effects of BPA from animal studies" Dr Green said.

"But we are never going to run a human study in which we expose people to BPA, as we know how harmful it is, which is why it's hard to show causality, hence we can only show association."

Phthalates are another class of chemicals for which there is a growing body of evidence to support detrimental effects on our health. These are used in soft plastic fishing lures, shower curtains, vinyl upholstery, adhesives, floor tiles, food containers and sex toys made of so-called jelly rubber.

It's also an endocrine disrupter that may impact male fertility, including semen quality and the quantity of damaged DNA in sperm.

Dr Green said a chemical's impact on the body might vary depending on how long people were exposed to it and how long it's been in their system.

"It's very hard to measure many of the chemicals that have effects on our endocrine systems," he said. "Generally these can be at low levels in the environment but these levels are often high enough to have an effect on our bodies."

Other factors such as exercise and poor diet could also influence people's health.

"This area is quite hard to work in because we often study the effects of just one compound at a time, but we live in a soup of multiple environmental pollutants," he said.

This is one reason why studies in different areas sometimes produce different results, as different compounds could be working with or against each other.

"If there is a mixture of compounds, it could be about how they work together to have a particular effect on the body and people's health."

Dr Green said these chemicals were so pervasive in our surroundings it was hard to avoid them, however he recommended people minimise their contact with plastic, especially if they were trying to conceive.

There are many simple ways people can easily reduce people's exposure.

Reheating food in plastic takeaway containers is not recommended. Picture: Jeff Camden
Reheating food in plastic takeaway containers is not recommended. Picture: Jeff Camden

For example, people should avoid drinking or eating food out of soft plastic containers. This includes takeaway containers and especially plastic bottles, which he describes as "lethal if left to heat up in a car".

"You are basically drinking water and a sizeable dose of BPA," he said.

"Use glass or aluminium drink bottles; they are more sustainable.

"With a takeaway coffee cup, the lining is BPA, not to mention the plastic in the lid."

However, looking for plastic products that are "BPA free" may not be safer as some manufacturers have begun replacing BPA with other similar chemicals that could be just as bad for us.

Avoiding plastic when possible is safer, while also being better for the environment.

"There are a lot of common messages around recycling or sustainability, but there is also the added benefit that it's better for your health," Dr Green said.

"It's better for the environment and better for us, so why not do it?"


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