Have you ever heard of endocrine disruptors?
You have maybe come across this complex word combo, and just skimmed over it without realising. You’ll probably have heard stories about plastic chemicals in your drinking water, or been warned not to leave your water bottle in the car during a hot summer day. Most likely, you have been taught to rinse your vegetables before eating them, or maybe someone has warned you about how soy could be bad for you.
All these warnings are related to endocrine disruptors.
Endocrine disruptors are not easy to understand or explain. This has meant that the general public is mostly completely oblivious, or unconcerned, about the specifics surrounding them, and their consequences. However, they can have a huge impact on our health and the health of future generations, and should definitely not be ignored.
So let’s look at what we’re dealing with.
What are endocrine disruptors?
Endocrine disruptors or EDCs are chemicals (they can also come from natural sources, like soy) that basically screw with our hormonal system by mimicking it. This can happen in different ways.
Some copy a natural hormone, fooling the body to respond heavily or at inappropriate times. Some block our hormones from having effect, or they directly stimulate our endocrine, causing an overproduction or underproduction of hormones in our bodies.
The accumulated effects of these disruptions are substantial. EDCs have been related to fertility problems, certain underdevelopments and behavioural abnormalities in children, and even cancer. They can cause harm, long after exposure has stopped, extending throughout our life time, and even influencing future generations. And they of course, also harm wildlife.
Not exactly something we want to be exposed to in our daily life. But we definitely are.
PCBs (pesticide extender) and dioxins in pesticides (yes those do end up in your food), flame retardants in paint and furniture, phytoestrogens in soy and other foods, phthalates in bottles, and the coatings of metal food cans, are just some examples of the long list of sources for endocrine disruptors that contaminate our lives.
But why are they so prevalent in our lives?
The presumption of innocence.
Before you start freaking out, throwing everything out of your house, and start living under a tree in the middle of the forest, don’t. At least not yet.
Although it is acknowledged that EDCs can be extremely harmful during the sensitive stages of life (pregnancy and children’s development), there is still widespread scientific uncertainty as to the real effects of many endocrine disruptors on humans, and the concentration necessary to cause significant changes in our lives.
This is where the post becomes tricky. The knowledge that most plastics contain EDCs could very well lead us to questioning many of the items that surround us. But with little scientific evidence as to the real effects over time, our decisions will have to rely on logical thinking, rather than straight up facts.
Don’t worry, we’re not asking you to buy into some hippy conspiracy theory. But we do think the usage of avoidable items, that are know to contain endocrine disruptors, comes down to common sense.
Hear us out..
Although new products introduced into our markets, theoretically have to meet high quality standards, and comply with health regulations (at least in many parts of the world), the standards upon which products are reviewed and analysed are ever-changing. With research on new materials being very limited, and their long-term effects impossible to predict, they are often approved without any real knowledge of how they may affect us and the environment. The reality is that only time will tell what the real consequences will be of many of the products we use comfortably use today.
Whilst it may seem risky, this is the approach that has been adopted until now: things are considered harmless until research demonstrates significant connections with adverse effects. See it as the presumption of innocence in our legal system: you stand trial considered innocent until proven otherwise.
The changed mindset around BPA is a good example of the limitations to such an approach.
BPA-free, does that mean we’re safe?
A couple of years ago there was a big fuss (mainly in the US) about Bisphenol A, also called BPA, a now known endocrine disruptor, extensively used since the 50s as a plasticizer (to make products more flexible) in many household products. In the US it was finally banned in baby bottles and children’s drinking cups, and in the coatings of packaging for infant formula, in 2012, following a very similar 2011 BPA-ban in Europe.
Scientific research had shown its negative health effects, including cancer.
Public outcry followed, targeting plastic bottles, cups and food containers. Companies wanted to be seen as limiting the damage, and all jumped onto the BPA-free bandwagon that you now see advertised today.
When looking to buy our reusable water bottle, there was not one reputable company that didn’t proudly stated the fact that their product was BPA-free. But we soon realised we had to look further than that.
Unfortunately, it’s not nearly this simple.
It is not that all companies have to do is take BPA out of their products, and we can go on happily ever after. BPA has simply been replaced with other chemicals, many of which we don’t know what they do. In fact, some we don’t even have knowledge of what material they are exactly.
Companies are not obliged to state what their products are made of, and finding the information yourself can be almost impossible. So instead, most of us resort to believing the vague company statements that guarantee health safety and environmental considerations.
Many replacement chemicals have already been recognised as endocrine disruptors, and there are also thousands of chemicals in the plastics used in our daily life that haven’t been researched properly.
Furthermore, only France has actually banned BPA from all food and drinks packaging, but it almost got them taken to court for it by the European Union. In the EU laws came out in 2018 to limit the amount of BPA in food packaging, especially the packaging of all food and drinks targeting babies and young children.
Even with BPA being under public scrutiny, its use is still widespread all over the world.
Are we overreacting to endocrine disruptors?
If you are still reading this thinking we are just trying to vilify plastics, and that legislators have things covered, maybe it’s worth looking at a couple of examples where this apparent lack of control resulted in hazardous materials being widely used for decades without further consideration.
Asbestos is clear example of a (building) material that was widely used until extensive research demonstrated its dangers to our health.
Maybe you have come across workers in white overalls stripping down asbestos of yet another fifties building block, suited up as if a nuclear disaster has struck. Its dangers are common knowledge now, but before it was banned in the nineties, asbestos had been used for decades, all whilst many scientists raised alarms about its dangerous effects to our health.
Mineral wool, an insulator in many people’s houses, started to become of interest to the scientific field concerning its effect on the human health. Nowadays, lung doctors in Europe call for action, worried about the link between the inhalation of the small glass fibers particles, to lung cancer among builders.
But still not all scientific research points in the same direction.
The USA is much more strict about its use than other countries. In Europe every country takes a different stand, even though Germany listed mineral wool used before 1996 as cancerous, being as hazardous as asbestos. And so the material is still extensively used in the construction industry.
Similarly, the concerns around the effects of BPA to our health existed from early on. But it took decades for BPA to be classified as hazardous, and all along there was a lot of resistance from the plastic industry.
This clearly shows that even when a material is not registered as toxic or dangerous to our health, it doesn’t mean the material is safe. And that even when there are concerns linked to its use, it takes many years for anything to be done about it at all.
BPA is out, which other plastics are there?
Of course, not all plastic can be treated the same. There are many different varieties, with different chemicals involved and varying toxicity levels. Plastics are classified into seven different types, being given a number from one to seven , called the resin identification code.
Number #1 to #6 identify a package/item as made from a specific plastic, whilst number #7 is more of a “everything else” category. First initiated to facilitate recycling, the code became a globally accepted standard to differentiate plastics.
#1, PET, one of the most commonly used, is found in most single use bottles and packaging.
#2, HDPE (High Density Polyethylene) makes up most milk jugs, detergent bottles and toys.
#3, PVC (Polyvinyl Chloride) is soft and flexible and used for some food wraps, bottles and, most commonly known, our plumbing pipes.
#4 LDPE (Low Density Polyethylene) can be found in our grocery bags, squeezable bottles and bread bags.
#5 Polypropylene, or PP, is commonly used for disposable diapers, potato chip bags, straws and microwave containers.
#6 PS (Polystyrene) is found in disposable drinking cups, take-out food containers, plastic cutlery and those stupid packaging foam peanuts. Many foam insulation boards are also made of this.
#7 The everything else category. Polycarbonate are amongst them and also BPA, but it comprises many other materials. Bioplastics, made from, for example, corn starch, also falls into this category. #7 classified plastics are used for baby bottles, plastic food containers and water bottles. And since category #7 is a catch number for all uncategorised plastics, there is no standard approach.
So, which plastics should you avoid?
Avoid the direct contact of #1, #3 and #6 plastics with food and drinks, as they can leach chemicals. PVC (number #3) contains phthalates, a known endocrine disruptor, and polystyrene (#6) being structurally very weak may leach styrene, another EDC, especially when heated.
The number #1 PET plastics are generally more safe, but cause harm when exposed to heat (when, for example, leaving your bottle in the car during a sunny day), leaching endocrine disruptors into your liquids. Exposure to heat is absolutely not advised for all three.
Category #2, #4 and #5 plastics are currently considered mostly safe. Being more stable plastics, they are safer to use around food and drinks. #2 doesn’t break when moderately exposed to UV-light and heat or cold, and #5 is more ‘microwave-safe’, because it is heat and cold resistant. Still, research has shown that all three types of plastics can still leach plastic components and chemicals in your food or drinks, mainly when stressed (in, for example, a microwave), or when, for example, being exposed to UV-light.
#7 is a more of an ‘at your own risk’ kind of category. We cannot be of more help here (sorry), because encompassing so many plastics in one, including the highly toxic BPA, it is difficult to know what is really in your product.
Generally speaking it would be more advisable to avoid category #7 plastics in your food and drinks, except for when the manufacturer can clearly state which specific chemicals they use, and that they are safe.
Basically, all plastics are generally harmful to a degree when in contact with out food and drinks.
What should you use instead?
Arming ourselves with knowledge about the products we buy, and making more conscious decisions of what we may inadvertently consume, is an important step forward. But when it comes to plastic and endocrine disruptors, uncertainty is a given.
Current codes and regulation in most countries, do not guarantee that the plastic you are exposed to are toxic-free and safe (and they definitely don’t guarantee they can be recycled). Remember, most manufacturers don’t even have to disclose the chemicals they use.
The bottom line is that most plastics contain chemicals and, whether we like it or not, these chemicals can be toxic. More research is needed, but why would you risk it?
Now, we are not saying that you should go crazy and throw everything out that contains plastic. That would be a bit overly dramatic and incredibly wasteful. But do try to quit single-use plastics all together (specially surrounding food and beverages), and slowly consider switching out other plastic items in your home when their life-span has come to an end.
It may be difficult to live plastic free, but there are definitely alternatives to our food and drink packaging, preparation and storing mechanisms. Products used by our ancestors are being re-popularised, and new alternatives are appearing every day.
Aluminium (beware not to buy an aluminium bottle with plastic inner coating, which likely will contain BPA) and stainless steel for your bottles and storage containers, glass being perfect for the microwave, and even bamboo, can all be great replacements.
With small changes you can begin your journey into plastic-free living. Much healthier for both your body and the planet, this is the way forward.
All the photos were taken in Sagye beach, Jeju island (South Korea).
Maybe not bamboo, at least in coffee cups. Otherwise, thanks for this helpful thoughtful post.
AH, thanks for the info! Trying to live more sustainably is a never-ending learning process 🙂