Cheap, versatile and non-breakable, plastic has long been viewed as the safe and easy material of choice for children’s toys and accessories by well-meaning mums and dads.
But a growing body of research suggests that plastic is far from safe for our little ones.
A recent paper by a team of US public health experts, published in April 2021, reviewed the results of multiple long-term studies on the impact of plastic on human health and concluded that exposure to certain plastics (phthalates) can not only disrupt hormones – impacting the onset of puberty and affecting future fertility - but it can impair brain development, and increase risks for learning, attention and behavioural disorders in children.
"We have enough evidence right now to be concerned about the impact of these chemicals on a child's risk of attention, learning and behavioural disorders," said the study’s lead author Stephanie Engel, professor of epidemiology at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill Gillings School of Global Public Health, who is urgently calling for regulation of and reduction of exposure to phthalates in order to protect children’s developing brains.
And yet plastic is everywhere - and the prospect of having to eliminate all plastics is so overwhelming that it is not useful advice. What we need instead is practical information and realistic recommendations of what can be done to reduce our children’s exposure to the most potentially harmful materials, so that we can prioritise where to make changes within the bounds of our daily lives. But first, a bit of background…
Why is plastic a problem?
Plastics might look solid and safe enough, but they are made up of chains of molecules that can break down over time, leaching chemicals that can enter our bodies.
“Many plastic bottles and sippy cups are made with polypropylene, and a recent study found that bottles made of polyprylene shed millions of microscopic plastic particles into the liquid they contain,” says Dr Richard So, pediatrician at Cleveland Clinic Children's in Ohio, US. “When babies drink from those bottles, they could ingest the so-called ‘microparticles’.”
You might remember from your high-school chemistry classes that plastics are ‘polymers’: long chains of molecules usually made of carbon, hydrogen, oxygen and/or silicon, which are chemically linked together or ‘polymerized’. When they are bound together as a polymer they are generally benign, but “bonds can break down over time, when plastics are repeatedly washed, exposed to heat or other stresses,” explains Tatiana Antonelli Abella, the founder and managing director of UAE-based environmental initiative Goumbook. “This liberates the building blocks of the chemical, which are toxic.”
Can plastics really enter our body?
We know for sure that plastics shed compounds that enter our bodies, because multiple studies have shown everyone from newborns to adults to have measurable amounts of plastic-derived chemicals in our urine or blood. “One study found that the average person could be swallowing about five grams of plastic every week,” says Dr Vinay Vyas, Specialist Paediatrician. Prime Medical Center, Al Nahda Branch Sharjah. “That's equal to a credit card's worth. These particles can make their way into our drinking water, food and even the air we breathe and it adds up over time.”
Studies show that the average person could be swallowing the equivalent of a credit card's worth of plastic every week
Children may be particularly susceptible to the chemicals in plastics because “they have high relative exposure compared to adults based on their size,” says Dr So. “Their metabolic or detoxification systems are still developing.”
While there are growing numbers of studies that link plastics with harm to human health, and even more that show their harmful effect on animal health, the science is still ongoing and there is some debate over the level of threat that such chemicals really pose. However, many scientists are of the opinion that the risk is high enough to make it worthwhile to try cutting down your plastic exposure where possible.
What type of plastics are the most worrying?
Two broad classes of plastic-related chemicals are of concern for human health: bisphenol-A or BPA, and additives used in the synthesis of plastics, which are known as phthalates.
Bisphenol A (BPA) is used make some types of beverage containers, compact disks, plastic dinnerware, impact-resistant safety equipment, automobile parts, and toys, according to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). BPA epoxy resins are also used in the protective linings of food cans, in dental sealants, and in other products.
You can be exposed to BPA by eating food or drinking water stored in containers that have BPA. Small children may be exposed by hand-to-mouth and direct oral (mouth) contact with materials containing BPA.
“The US Food and Drug Administration banned the potentially harmful chemical bisphenol-A (BPA), which is used to harden plastics, from plastic baby bottles and sippy cups in 2012,” explains Dr Richard So. “Since bisphenols can mimic the body’s reproductive hormones, they may affect the timing of puberty.”
In 2017 the European Chemicals Agency also concluded that BPA should be listed as a substance of very high concern due to its properties as an endocrine disruptor.
The ‘BPA-free’ labels on plastic bottles serve as a reassurance that the product is safe to drink out of, but the reality is that BPA has been replaced by another chemical
But BPA is not the only chemical we should worry about, says Abella. “Plastics contain many chemical additives that give them various characteristics such as durability, plasticity, and stability in heat. Among these chemicals are endocrine disrupting chemicals (EDCs). According to the World Health Organization, EDCs are associated with imbalances in sex ratios, disruption in fertility cycles and delayed or accelerated puberty in females, delayed neurodevelopment in children, immune disorders, and hormone-related cancers.”
Even low levels of exposure to endocrine disrupting chemicals are of concern to living organisms, adds Abella: “experimental research on animals shows that at low levels of exposure, low birth rates, thyroid function, and metabolism, and increased incidence and progression of hormone-sensitive cancers were observed. The period during which test subjects were most susceptible to the effects of endocrine disrupting chemicals were during embryonic and early development stages.”
A product being labelled ‘BPA-fee’ is also not the reassurance parents might think it is. “The ‘BPA-free’ labels on plastic bottles serve as a reassurance that the product is safe to drink out of, but the reality is that BPA has been replaced by another chemical,” explains Abella. “New research adds onto growing evidence that BPA-free alternatives may not be as safe as consumers think. Researchers found that in mice, BPA replacements caused decreased sperm counts and less-viable eggs.”
Phthalates are a group of chemicals used to make plastics more durable, soft and pliable, and they are currently unregulated. According to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, phthalates are found in hundreds of products, such as vinyl flooring, lubricating oils, and personal-care products (soaps, shampoos, hair sprays).
Some phthalates are in polyvinyl chloride (PVC) plastics, which are used to make products such as plastic packaging, garden hoses, and medical tubing.
Phthalates have been shown to leach into food from plastic equipment like tubing used in commercial dairy operations, food preparation gloves, conveyor belts, and food packaging materials. Building products containing phthalates, such as vinyl flooring and wall coverings, have a large surface area from which phthalates can migrate into the indoor air and household dust, which we can breathe in.
A 2018 Norwegian study found that children of mothers that with the highest prenatal exposure to certain phthalates were 3 times more likely to be diagnosed with ADHD
Historically, phthalates were added to children’s toys, although use of multiple phthalates in toys has been banned by the Consumer Product Safety Commission in the US. Because children tend to crawl around and touch many things, then put their hands in their mouths, phthalate particles in dust might be a greater risk for children than for adults.
More than 30 studies have found associations between prenatal exposure to phthalates and adverse neurodevelopment in offspring, according to the authors of a 2021 US study on the neurotoxicity of phthalates. The most consistent pattern across multiple studies is associations with behaviours commonly associated with ADHD (including hyperactivity, aggression/defiance, and emotional reactivity), as well as deficits in executive function. A 2018 Norwegian study measured second-trimester urinary phthalates and found that children of mothers that fell in the highest quintile of prenatal exposure to certain phthalates had almost 3 times the odds of being diagnosed with ADHD as those with mothers in the lowest quintile.
EASY WAYS TO CUT DOWN ON PLASTIC
There is some good news about plastics. It is largely believed that chemicals such as BPA do not linger in your body for very long, so if you cut them out or cut down on them in your child’s life, their bodies will quickly clear itself of them. While you’re never going to be able to avoid plastic entirely here are some tips for cutting down on your exposure…
Get a water filter
No matter what you do, if the water you drink multiple times a day spends all of its time inside a plastic bottle, it’s going to be harder to cut down your exposure to plastic-derived chemicals. “Stopping bottled water is the first step towards a healthier and greener lifestyle,” says Tatiana Antonelli Abella of Goumbook. “And if you have babies, give them milk, water and juices in silicon or glass bottles.”
Choose glass over plastic for food and baby milk storage
Bisphenols are often in the plastic containers we use to store food - even those described as BPA-free have other Bisphenols such as BPS and BPF instead, but there is controversy around whether these are actually safer. Just think about how often you might fill your plastic food containers with warm food, or put them in a hot-water dish washer: all chances for those chemical bonds to be broken down and leach into your food. “Consider storing breast milk or formula in glass containers in the refrigerator,” recommends Dr Richard So. Equally, consider glass food containers for your own food.
Or at least choose your plastics wisely by checking the recycle code
If you are going to opt for a plastic food container, perhaps because glass is generally more expensive, try to be mindful of the type of plastic it is. ”Plastic with recycle numbers 2, 4, 5 imprinted are safest,” says Dr Vinay Vyas, Specialist Paediatrician at Prime Medical Center Al Nahda Branch Sharjah. An item’s recycle number is usually printed at the bottom of the container. Avoid any items with the recycling code 3 (phthalates), 6 (styrene, which is thought to be a human carcinogen), and 7 (bisphenols).
Never heat food in plastic
Since heat can cause the molecule bonds in plastic to break down, which is what causes chemical leaching into the environment, never anything plastic in the microwave – especially baby bottles or anything that you use for babies or children, who are the most vulnerable to the chemical load that can come from plastic
Throw away damaged or broken plastic items
If a plastic item is damaged or broken, it’s more likely to leach chemicals. Throw it out.
Opt for fresh foods where possible
We know that fresher food is better for us than processed food anyway, but now there is the added perspective that the more processes that your food and drink go through from source to table, the more likely it is that they will be stored in plastic containers or go through the sorts of plastic tubing that can leach phthalates into your food. Research shows that higher-fat foods such as dairy or meat tend to be particularly sticky at picking up phthalates.
Choose cartons over tins
If you do need to rely on package convenience foods, it’s worth knowing that bisphenols are often found in the lining of food tins, so choose cartons rather than cans or tins where possible. It’s worth noting that the plastic bags of frozen foods are not thought to be a problem – plus, materials stored at a freezing temperatures are less likely to leach anyway.
Avoid single use plastics
“In general, we should avoid all single use plastics such as plastic bags, coffee cups, disposable plates and cutlery,” says Abella. “Let's reuse as much as possible, we can take our reusable bags when we go shopping and our reusable tumbler when we go out for coffee.” Not only is this better for the environment, but it’s safer for you too.
Buy a HEPA filtered vacuum cleaner
Ever wondered what HEPA filters are all about? Phthalates are found in many of the plastic-based or plastic-derived items in the home – from baby play mats and vinyl flooring, to shower curtains, and many other soft plastics. As these items experience daily wear and tear, the phthalates can shed in the form of dust in the home – which especially babies are at risk of touching and breathing in when crawling around or playing on the floor. A vacuum cleaner with a HEPA (high efficiency particulate air) catches and removes dust and very small particles, instead of blowing them back out into the room.
Pick wooden over plastic toys
Because babies so often put toys – and anything – in their mouths, it’s best to choose wooden or silicone toys rather than plastic if possible.
Take care with personal care products when pregnant or breastfeeding
A human study found that baby boys exposed to high phthalates levels while in utero had a shorter distance between their genitals and anus, which has been linked to lower testosterone levels and reduced sperm counts as an adult. According to a 2020 study in China, “Phthalates can cross the placental barrier as a result of continuous exposure during pregnancy, with profoundly negative consequences for the future health of infants, by increasing the risk of developing defects such as low birth weight, cardiovascular diseases, cryptorchidism, and cancer later in life.” For this reason, pregnant women and those who are breastfeeding would do well to try to avoid their own exposure to phthalates where possible.
Check the ingrediets of your baby shampoo
Many personal care products contain phthlates – avoid these if possible in favour of more natural-based shampoos, shower gels and bath foams.