Plastic: Dangerous to Your Health and the Environment

What's in your water bottle — besides water?
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Phthalates are a class of chemicals found in many personal care products such as shampoo and lipstick, as well as in food packaging, vinyl flooring and car interiors. Studies suggest that phthalates may alter hormone function and could contribute to the development of asthma, obesity, diabetes and infertility. However, since phthalates are excreted from the body in about a day, researchers don’t yet know how exposure affects health over time.

Woman drinking plastic water bottle

Plastic products may alter hormone function and could contribute to disease.

“We suspect there’s greater vulnerability in prenatal exposure and exposure during puberty,” says Leonardo Trasande, M.D., MPP, director of the Center for the Investigation of Environmental Hazards at New York University. “But without data on [lifetime] exposure, it’s difficult to make heads or tails of the risk.”

Unfortunately, it’s pretty much impossible to avoid using plastic or items containing phthalates since they are so widespread, but you can be proactive about limiting your exposure. Divine what’s safe(r) by looking at the number inside the recycling triangle on any plastic product.

Types of Plastic

  1. PET or PETE. Polyethylene terephthalate is benign unless heated or scratched, in which case it could leach chemicals into food and beverages. It is used in many water and juice bottles and is recyclable.
  2. HDPE. High-density polyethylene is used to make milk jugs, shampoo bottles and detergent containers. It has a low risk of leaching and is recyclable.
  3. PVC. Vinyl or polyvinyl chloride materials typically contain phthalates, which are a known carcinogen and endocrine disruptor. It is commonly found in toys, plastic wrap, food containers, shower curtains, lotions and candles. It is not safe for cooking and is not recyclable.
  4. LDPE. Low-density polypropylene is used to make plastic grocery bags, squeezable bottles and reusable food containers. It is relatively safe and is sometimes recyclable.
  5. PP. Polypropylene is found in yogurt containers, baby bottles, medicine bottles and microwave-safe containers. It is recyclable.
  6. PS. Polystyrene is used to make Styrofoam items, packing peanuts and plastic cutlery. It has been found to leach styrene, a neurotoxin and possible carcinogen that has been banned in many cities. It is very difficult to recycle.
  7. BPA, PC (polycarbonate) or "Other." Items in this catch-all category contain polycarbonate, which is used in water bottles, DVDs, computer parts and sports equipment. PC can leach bisphenol A (BPA), a hormone disruptor that mimics estrogen. Most items in this category cannot be recycled.

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