With plastics, the more we avoid the better
Last week, Gov. Cuomo urged the recall of something called “Clingy Darts,” foamlike plastic throwing toys for little kids, because of high levels of a chemical called DEHP. The chemical can cause gastrointestinal problems in humans (or liver damage in rats). And everyone knows little kids put everything in their mouths.
DEHP is used to make plastic softer and more pliable.
It made me think of the controversy over BPA, another chemical used in plastics. Several studies linking BPA to hormonal changes — and to cancer and brain and heart problems, and maybe ADHD, diabetes and more — caused enough public outcry that the chemical has been removed from many products, reusable water bottles for example.
BPA makes plastics both tougher and more flexible. Last week, when I went to reuse a plastic soup container from a Chinese takeout, the top edge broke off, making me wonder if I had gotten a new BPA-free container. If BPA is dangerous, and BPA-free is useless, I might as well use glass.
The Breast Cancer Fund worries about three different kinds of plastics: polycarbonate (think food packaging and bottles), polystyrene (like foam coffee cups) and vinyl chloride (also in food packaging, plastic toys, appliances, pipes etc.)
The problem with these plastics is the chemicals that leach out of them. And if you are eating or drinking from things encased in plastics, those chemicals can end up in your food — and in you.
Various studies link these chemicals (BPA, styrene, dioxins, vinyl chloride) to cancers and disruptions of the endocrine system leading to diabetes, thyroid problems, obesity and other ills.
The FDA considers the levels of chemical leaching from food containers safe enough, although it says it has “some concerns” about BPA. The Breast Cancer Fund and other groups say even low levels can interfere with our endocrine systems, causing multiple problems.
It’s pretty much impossible to avoid all plastic if you live on this planet. It’s not easy to avoid plastic on your food, unless you manage to raise all of your food yourself. I have a garden, but not a milk cow, an orange grove or a plot of coffee plants.
Still, you can reduce some of your exposure by buying more fresh and less packaged foods, and by buying in bulk. You can use glass containers instead of plastic ones. And you can reduce the amount of plastic that gets from your container into your body by not heating food in plastic.
I’m always trying to lessen the amount of plastic I use, but I still reuse the containers that show up in my house, for storing leftovers and packing lunches. I use glass containers when I can — mason jars for yogurt or soup, glass storage containers for salads or leftovers.
I use less glass in my son’s lunch box, because of the weight and the potential for breakage. He’ll get a dessert or a pasta salad in a small, lidded glass container, but his sandwich will be wrapped in wax paper and his drink is in a reusable plastic bottle.
At work and at friends’ houses, I notice more people using glass for storage. Even the colleague who brings leftovers in a plastic not-butter tub has a porcelain bowl on his desk to heat it up in.
Heating plastic increases the amount of chemicals leaching out. That’s why leaving a water bottle in your hot car in the summer isn’t a good idea.
I don’t know if the reason so many more people seem to have cancer, diabetes and thyroid problems is related to the way our food is grown, processed and packaged. But it seems an easy first step toward avoiding unknown problems is to simplify the relationship we have with food.
That means using basic and fresh ingredients when possible, rather than processed and packaged stuff in boxes or plastic. It might mean less “convenience” but a healthier product.
It might mean packing your leftovers in glass, which might make your lunch box a little heavier. But maybe it’s worth it.
Margaret Hartley is the Gazette’s Sunday and features editor. Greenpoint appears in the Gazette’s print edition Sundays on the Environment page.
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