When a child takes a tumble and falls on the corner of a plastic toy instead of a metal one, we are relieved. When we pull a cup out of the dishwasher and it slips from our hands and falls on the floor near our toddler, we are thankful that the cup is plastic instead of glass. In terms of preventing injury to the outside of our children’s bodies, plastics may seem like a great idea. However, the chemicals that plastics contain can be harmful to our children’s health, as well as the environment.
The most widely used plastic, polyvinyl chloride (PVC), is of particular concern. There are a number of health-related problems associated with PVC. First, during the manufacture and burning of PVC, dioxin, a known human carcinogen, is released. Second, during initial use of PVC products, phthalates, chemicals that have been linked to reproductive birth defects and other illnesses in animal studies, can off-gas causing the "new car" or "new shower curtain smell." Third, during the everyday use of PVC products, phthalates can leach into foods and even our children’s mouths. Human exposure to phthalates results from both worldwide ecosystem contamination due to manufacturing processes and direct contact with phthalate-containing products.
As with exposure to many chemicals, it is the cumulative amount of exposure to phthalates that is of concern. So don’t be immediately alarmed if you have enjoyed your new car’s smell for weeks or if you have been storing your leftovers in disposable plastic containers for years. The amount of exposure needed to cause ill-effects is not known and no studies have been performed on humans. However, according to Health Care without Harm, an international coalition of hospitals, medical professionals, and environmental health organizations, animal tests have found that exposure to phthalates interferes with male reproductive tract development and was found to be toxic to cells in the testes responsible for assuring normal sperm and hormone production. Further, the research shows that young, developing organisms are more vulnerable to exposure to phthalates than adults due to the fact that compared to their body weight they eat, drink, and breathe more than adults.
PVC is used in toys; household goods; healthcare products; and food storage containers and water bottles, among other things. Below, we detail the risks from direct contact through leaching associated with PVC— specifically the leaching of the phthalates that are in PVC— in toys and disposable food/liquid storage containers that you use everyday.
The Bad News:
From the time a child has found his hands, everything from toys to teethers to dust bunnies seem to go into his mouth. According to Greenpeace, a nonprofit corporation focused on the most crucial worldwide threats to our planet’s biodiversity and environment, research has shown that many teethers and soft plastic toys contain phthalates that can leach out of toys into the mouth of a child. In addition, a 2005 study by the Environment California Research and Policy Center, a nonprofit corporation focusing exclusively on protecting California’s air, water, and open spaces, and the United States Public Interest Group, a nonprofit corporation protecting the environment, encouraging a fair, sustainable economy, and fostering responsive, democratic government, tested eighteen children’s products and found that fifteen out of the eighteen bath books, teethers, or bath toys contained phthalates. A few of these products included a teether made by Gund, Sassy’s "Who Loves Baby Photo Book?", the Leachco Sleep On Secure 3-in-1 Infant Sleep Positioner, and the First Years’ Air Flow Sleep Positioner.
What You Can Do:
You don’t have to get rid of all your child’s plastic toys to protect him from the potential harm phthalates may cause. In order to protect your child from toxic toys and potential exposure to phthalates in PVC-containing toys, you can purchase toys made with alternative materials. In addition to plastics, toys are also made of natural materials, including textiles and wood. Non-PVC products, such as natural rubber (latex) or polypropylene/polyethylenes, are widely used as an alternative to soft PVC toys. For rigid toys, a plastic alternative for PVC is polyolefines or natural wood.
It should be noted that as of 1999, the United States Consumer Product Safety Commission, a body with jurisdiction to review more than 15,000 products around the homes, to provide information to consumers about products, and to work in cooperation with manufacturers to announce recalls of products believed to pose potential risk for serious injury or death, asked manufacturers to phase out the use of phthalates in teething toys and rattles. The following companies made the commitment: Chicco, Little Tykes, Disney, Mattel (Fisher-Price, ARCOTOYS, Tyco Preschool), Evenflo, Safety 1st, The First Years, Sassy, Gerber, Shelcore Toys, and Hasbro (incl. Playskool). The following retailers have removed phthalate-containing teethers, rattles, pacifiers, and bottle nipples from store shelves: Toys-R-Us, Walmart, Sears, Target, K-Mart, ShopKo Stores, Inc., and Warner Brothers Studio Stores.
Fouling Our Food
The Bad News:
Phthalates, Universal Recycling Symbol "3" – In addition to its use in toys, PVC plastic is often found in the disposable food storage containers that we use to store our children’s meals as well as disposable water bottles. The best way to tell if a product is packaged in or made of PVC is to look inside the universal recycling symbol on the bottom of the product. If the number inside the symbol is the number "3," the product is made of PVC. Some products are not labeled, like PVC cling wrap. Whether labeled or not, phthalates can leach from PVC disposable food storage containers, water bottles, or even cling wrap into foods (particularly those foods that are oily or that have a high fat content) on contact and when heated. According to the United State Environmental Protection Agency, exposure has been linked to negative effects on the liver, kidney, spleen, bone formation, and body weight.
Polycarbonate, Universal Recycling Symbol "7" – Although not made of PVC, Nalgene bottles and other sport bottles may not be the healthful choice that we all assume they are when we drink water from them. So, if you’re in the habit of toting Nalgene bottles with you on your day hikes or on your hikes to the office, you may want to note the following: Plastic bottles marked with the universal recycling symbol "7" are made of polycarbonate. Although polycarbonate does not contain phthalates, according to the journal Environmental Health Perspectives, bottles made of polycarbonate can leach the chemical bisphenol A when heated, washed, or exposed to acidic foods. Bisphenol A (BPA) was identified in 81 of 115 published animal studies to have harmful effects such as early onset of puberty, changes in hormones, increased prostate size, decreased sperm production, and breast tissue changes in mice that resemble early states of breast cancer in mice and humans. One study of BPA in humans found that women with a history of recurrent miscarriages had three times the levels of BPA in their blood compared to women without a miscarriage history.
Other Plastics – Other plastics commonly used by children may not contain phthalates but may contain other harmful chemicals. Before you go rummaging through the cabinets, below is a list of products commonly used by kids, along with a notation of the universal recycling symbol associated with each product and the chemicals used to make that plastic.
- Baby bottle nipples and pacifiers are usually made of silicone or latex rubber and don’t contain phthalates or other identified harmful chemicals.
- Disposable liners for breast milk or formula are labeled as number 2 and are made of high density polyethylene.
- Opaque plastic cutlery is labeled as number 6 and made of polystyrene.
- Like Nalgene bottles and other sport bottles, baby bottles, sippy cups, and clear plastic cutlery are labeled as number 7 and are made of polycarbonate.
What You Can Do:
Safer Choices & Alternatives – According to the Food Health Program of the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy, an organization that promotes resilient family farms, rural communities and ecosystems around the world through research and education, science and technology, and advocacy, the safer choices for food and beverage storage and packaging are products labeled with the universal recycling symbols of numbers 1, 2, 4, and 5. Those to be avoided are numbers 3, 6, and 7.
The safest way to avoid chemicals leaching into your child’s food and drinks is to purchase food and drinks that are not packaged in plastic at all. In addition avoid using plastic containers in the microwave. Chemicals are released when plastic is heated. Instead use glass or ceramic containers when heating foods and drinks as well as for storage. Note that " microwave safe" does not mean that there is no leaching of chemicals. Further, use waxed paper or paper towels for covering foods when heating and not plastic cling wraps. Avoid plastic bottled water. If you do use plastic water bottles such as Nalgene or other sport bottles made of polycarbonate plastic, in order to avoid the leaching of BPA, do not use these bottles for warm or hot liquids, avoid harsh dishwashing soaps and hot water when washing, and discard old or scratched bottles.
As for baby bottles and sippy cups, use alternatives to polycarbonate. Baby bottles made of glass, polyethylene or polypropylene or those made of milky-colored plastic contain no polycarbonates. Baby bottles are not usually labeled with the type of plastic used, but you can call the manufacturer of the bottles to find out the composition of you baby’s bottles. Some popular baby bottles and sippy cups made of polycarbonate that should be avoided include: Avent, Dr. Browns, Evenflo (clear), First Years, Gerber (clear), Playtex Vent Aire, Sassy, and TupperCare baby bottles, as well as Gerber Suzy’s Zoo & Sippy Snacker, Playtex First Sipster & Sparkling Sipster. Safer alternatives include: Evenflo glass or pastel polyethylene plastic, Gerber polypropylene opaque plastic, Medela breastmilk polypropylene storage bottles and polyethylene milk storage bags, and disposable bottle systems with polyethylene plastic inserts, as well as Avent Magic Cup, Evenflo cups (inner lining), First Years Take & Toss, Gerber Color Change, Sport Fun Grip and Soft Starter, Playtex Sipster, and Big Sipster & Quick Straw. If you cannot avoid use of polycarbonate bottles or sippy cups, you can minimize leaching by discarding old or scratched baby bottles and sippy cups and by heating foods and drinks outside of the plastic and then transferring into the plastic when cool enough to drink.
Being informed about the types of plastics and what they are made of can help you reduce your child’s potential exposure to phthalates and other chemicals that may be contained in toys or that may leach into foods or drinks. In addition, buying those plastics which are better for your child’s health may ultimately steer manufacturers to recognize the dangers of plastics. Plastics are not always a friend, but can also be a foe to our children.
Information used in this article was found at the following sources, which you can visit if you want to find out more about this topic:
is a nonprofit corporation focused on the most crucial worldwide threats to
our planet’s biodiversity and environment)
Environment California Research and Policy Center is a nonprofit corporation
focusing exclusively on protecting California’s air, water, and open spaces)
http://www.cpsc.gov/cpscpub/prerel/PRHTML99/99031.html (The United States Consumer Product Safety Commission is a federal governmental body with jurisdiction to review more than 15,000 products around the homes, to provide information to consumers about products, and to work in cooperation with manufacturers to announce recalls of products believed to pose potential risk for serious injury or death)
http://website.lineone.net/~mwarhurst/phthalates.html (Introduction to Hormone Disrupting Compounds authored by Dr. A. Michael Warhurst, an environmental chemist who works for the World Wildlife Fund in Brussels)
by Health Care Without Harm, an international coalition of hospitals, medical
professionals, and environmental health organizations on the issue of PVC’s
in medical devices)
by Health Care Without Harm detailing "Aggregate Exposure to Phthalates in
by the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy, that promotes resilient
family farms, rural communities and ecosystems around the world through research
and education, science and technology, and advocacy detailing "Smart Plastics
Guide, Healthier Food Uses of Plastics, For Parents and Children")