Got plastics? I hope not!

This book,  given to me by my boyfriend's mother, opened up a whole new world to me. 

This book, given to me by my boyfriend's mother, opened up a whole new world to me. 

Last summer I was given a book called Plastic Purge. I think most people are aware of the problems that come with plastic use, but this book opened up a whole new world for me. 

We CANNOT escape plastics in today’s world. 

Despite my passionate dislike of plastics, even I have a hard time eliminating them from my life. I frequently struggle when buying milk and my favorite, cranberry juice, because both come in plastic containers. However, my roommate recently told me about a local dairy company that sells milk in glass bottles. I’m making the switch! I also have pledged to always BYOB (Bring Your Own Bag) whether I’m shopping for groceries, clothes, a new cellphone, books, you name it! And if I ever forget my reusable bag, I don’t care how much trouble I have to go through, I do not get a new one from the check-out stand! 

Most people know the environmental impact of plastics [1], but what about the negative effects they have on our own health? Plastics are made from crude oil. Despite all the refining oil goes through in order to create plastics, they remain inherently toxic. 

Let’s start with Bisphenol A. 

BPA is a chemical found in polycarbonate plastics — plastics that are pliable above a specific temperature. It is found in containers used for food storage, including water bottles, food cans, infant bottles, etc. Yes, our coffee cups and milk cartoons are all lined with a nice layer of plastic inside!

BPA is an endocrine disruptor—that is, a chemical that mimics natural hormones and disrupts normal cellular functions of the body. For instance, BPA can imitate estrogen in a woman’s body and has been linked to complications with pregnancy [3]. Nowadays, you can find many BPA-free plastic products. However, manufacturers actually substitute BPA for other bisphenol such as Bisphenol S (BPS), which can be just as potent.

Plastic waste near Kundala Dam Lake, Munnar, India. Image taken by Taruna Aggarwal.  

Plastic waste near Kundala Dam Lake, Munnar, India. Image taken by Taruna Aggarwal.  

Recent work by Dr. Deborah Kurrasch and colleagues [2] showed BPS, and other BPA-free  products, aren’t really that safe. The researchers exposed zebrafish embryos to varying low concentrations of BPA and BPS (the smallest concentration was 1,000-fold lower than the accepted daily exposure for humans). After exposure to these phenols they measured locomotor activity and the number of neurons born at different developmental stages. Neurons are our messenger cells and allow communication among different parts of the body. So having the accurate number of neurons generated at the right developmental stages is crucial to the formation and functionality of neural connections. Results showed that neurons in these fish were forming prematurely or too late.

Next up are phthalates (pronounced as THAL-ates). 

These can be found in car interiors, personal-care products, toys, food packaging, or flooring [5]. Unlike BPA, scientists are still trying to figure out what exactly phthalates do to a human body. A study published in 2013 measured the presence of 8 phthalates in urine samples collected from 623 10-year-old Norwegian children from 2001 through 2004. The authors did find a correlation between asthma in children and phthalates. They also suggest that readers take their conclusions with a grain of salt because the study was not conducted over a long period of time [4]. 

BPA, phthalates and several other unknown chemicals used to create plastics are dangerous. Below are some tips for avoiding exposure to these harmful chemicals.

1. Avoid BPA-free containers like plastic water bottles and use stainless steel instead. I know stainless steel products are expensive, but they are worth it as a long-term investment for your health and the environment! 
2. Use pyrex containers or mason jars instead of Tupperware for food storage. And you should never wash your Tupperware in the dishwasher or place them in the microwave where they can become heated. 

Types of plastics  Image source

Types of plastics Image source

3. Avoid plastics # 1 and # 7. # 7 is the worst kind out there! The plastic number is easily found on the bottom of most containers inside of a recycle sign logo.  
4. Buy glass jars instead of canned food, which are often lined with plastic. 
5. Avoid getting plastic bags when shopping for groceries, clothes, books, etc. I have seen people use a produce bag for one lemon. Please don’t be that person! These days you can buy biodegradable bags for only a few extra bucks. 

Reducing your plastic footprint is not an impossible task. Currently, the world’s population is approximately 7.2 billion and will hit 9 billion in only 30 to 40 years. With our ever-growing population, we create more waste! We all have to change our environmentality if we want to leave a healthy planet for future generations. 

1. Environmental Impact. Accessed February 13, 2015. 
2. Kurrasch D.M. et al. Low-dose exposure to bisphenol A and replacement bisphenol S induces precocious hypothalamic neurogenesis in embryonic zebrafish
3. Lathi, R.B. et al. Conjugated bisphenol A in maternal serum in relation to miscarriage risk
4. Bertelsen, R.J. et al. Urinary biomarkers for phthalates associated with asthma in Norwegian children.
5. Carlstedt, F. et al. PVC flooring is related to human uptake of phthalates in infants

Taruna Aggarwal is a Plant Biology graduate student at the University of New Hampshire, where her research encompasses understanding the evolution of forest fungal pathogens. She’s excited about using many bioinformatic tools to study pathogenesis in an emerging fungal pathogen called Geosmithia morbida. Environmentalism is her passion, and she’s a firm believer of Reducing, Reusing, and Recycling.