Plastics are made up of crude oil and synthetic chemicals. Depending on the type of plastic, and the way it’s used, they vary in terms of toxicity and risks to human health. They’ve also now made their way into our water systems on a worrying scale, and have been found disrupting the bodies and lives of creatures and animals at all levels of the food chain.
So, how can plastics affect human health?
There are several levels in which they can cause issues:
1. Through contact with your food and drink
2. By releasing toxic gasses into the air we breath
3. By being ingested as micro-plastic particles
Through contact with your food and drink
It’s been know for some time that, when in contact with food and drink, plastics leach chemicals which can be hugely harmful to human health. While BPA has received much attention in recent years, and is often now easy to avoid, unfortunately the chemicals which have been used to replace BPA are thought to be worse, but worryingly are not yet fully tested.
How to minimise this for your family:
· Avoid using plastic plates, bowls, cups and bottles for your babies. There are lots of lovely, affordable and dishwasher safe bamboo and stainless steel alternatives on the market now (try Little Green Home for a great selection or Bobo&boo for easy wash bamboo crockery). If you must use plastic, never let it come in to contact with hot food or drinks and don’t expose it to extreme heat (dishwashers) or strong detergents, as doing this will cause more toxins to release. And it’s never a good idea to leave food or drink lying around in it for long periods of time.
· Ditch the cling film. Often made with PVC, it’s not safe for food or for the planet. Bees wax wraps and glass and stainless steel containers are good alternatives. Or save all your old glass jars and use these for fridge storage.
· Eat fresh, home cooked foods as much as possible (Mums Know Best is a great source of inspiration). Restaurants often prepare, cook and store meals in harmful plastics.
By releasing toxic gasses into the air we breath
Plastics such as PVC can release over 100 toxic gasses into the air over a 28 day period (1). Other polymers, such as those used in mattresses and baby play mats, can also give off dangerous levels of VOCs (volatile organic compounds). This can be hugely damaging to the delicate neurological development in young children, and has been strongly linked to asthma and autism in little ones (2).
PVC is common in many houses, and can be found in: vinyl flooring, shower curtains, buggy rain covers, certain window and door frames, water beds, inflatable toys, clothing and car seats – just to name a few.
How best to minimise this for your family:
· Avoid, where possible, using any of the items listed above. Invest in an organic mattress (like these lovely ones by Naturalmat), and only use your buggy rain cover when absolutely necessary (or just use the buggy hood paired with natural rubber wellies! This will keep most of the rain off your little ones.).
· Air all new plastic items, away from the family, for at least 28 days before using them. A lot of the most harmful gasses will be released during these first few weeks.
· Open windows every day to freshen and circulate household air (more on this in a later blog post), and open car windows before getting in if you have PVC interiors.
· Choose solid wooden floorboards where possible.
Being ingested as micro-plastic particles
Micro-plastics are a modern day issue which are hard to avoid. A recent study, published in October 2018, found microplastics present in all tested human stools (3). Microplastics are in the air that we breathe, in our water systems and in our food chain. Ingesting tiny plastics directly into our bodies is a huge concern for many reasons. Firstly, as it can’t be digested, these particles will build up inside us, potentially clogging vital organs and disrupting the absorption of nutrients. Secondly, the warm and acidic environment in our gut will cause the plastics to release chemicals and toxins into our bodies.
Many studies done on sea life and animals have shown ingested microplastics are causing many issues ranging from death to reproductive problems and other hormonal imbalances. Full effects on human health are only beginning to be investigated now by scientists, with the UK government carrying out one such study (4).
How best to minimise this for your family:
· Avoid polyester fabrics. Teddies and soft toys are likely to be sucked by little ones. Particles from polyester clothing may also find its way into little mouths as they collect in household dust which is easily ingested by babies and toddlers who spend a lot of time on the floor putting toys and hands into mouths.
· Avoid drinking from plastic bottles.
· Until more is known, bypass small fish where the intestines have not been removed before eating (small prawns, most shell fish, whole anchovies etc) as almost all sea life has been found to contain high levels of microplastics in their guts.
1 Lester, S., Schade, M. and Weigand, C. 2008. Volatile vinyl – the new shower curtain’s chemical smell. Falls Church, VA: the Center for Health, Environment & Justice. Online: http://www.chej.org/showercurtainreport (20 October 2009).
2 Kolarik, B. et al. 2008. The association between phthalates in dust and allergic diseases among Bulgarian children. Environmental Health Perspectives 116(1): 98-103.
2 Bornehag et al. 2002. Dampness in buildings and health. Dampness at home as a risk factor for symptoms among 10,851 Swedish children. (DBH-STEP 1). SP Swedish National Testing and Research Institute and the International Centre for Indoor Environment and Energy, Technical University of Denmark Karlstad University, Sweden.
3 The Guardian, Microplastics found in human stools for the first time. https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2018/oct/22/microplastics-found-in-human-stools-for-the-first-time
4The Guardian, UK to investigate human health impact of microplastics. https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2016/nov/14/uk-to-investigate-human-health-impact-of-microplastics