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Public Health Mythbusters: What's the Deal with Plastics?

written by Rebecca Katz, Ph.D.,MPH
on Friday, 16th August ,2013

Public Health Mythbusters: what’s the deal with plastics?

co-authored by Nisha Putambekar and Andrea Vaught.

Nisha Putambekar is a Research Associate and Andrea Vaught is a Research Assistant, working with Professor Rebecca Katz at George Washington University, Department of Health Policy

 – August 16, 2013

Each day we find ourselves constantly bombarded by the news, social media, television ads, and many more sources of information that provide us with unsolicited advice and sound bites regarding our health choices. How do we know what is right? Who do we turn to for objective and fact-based conclusions on whether to embrace or avoid chocolate, coffee, red wine, bagged salads, or gluten? How do we know when to tune in or tune out? This blog post is the first of a series covering common public health questions and myths. We hope to shed light on various topics ranging from issues with plastics to food safety. Many of the topics that we will be discussing are in the news, in the literature, and elsewhere and there are oftentimes opposing viewpoints, ongoing research, or misguided information. We aim to provide some insights, suggestions, and objective information to help guide your health decision-making for you and your family.

This post addresses concerns surrounding plastic containers, plastic water bottles, and a substance that has been in the news for some time called BPA. So what is the deal with plastics? Conclusive evidence from scientific studies is lacking, but here’s what we know…

A major question that has surfaced in the last couple of years is: is it safe to microwave food in plastic containers or covered in plastic wrap? Well, it depends. Microwaving food in plastic containers or covered in plastic wrap is considered safe—as long as the plastics used are marked as “microwave-safe.” Plastics marked as “microwave-safe” are required to meet certain standards by the FDA and must be rigorously tested by manufacturers before being labeled or indicated as such. If the container isn’t marked as “microwave-safe,” it has not met those standards; chemicals known as plasticizers, used in the manufacturing process, may leach into food when the plastic is heated.

So what does this mean? Make sure you’re not heating foods or liquids in takeout containers, water bottles, cream cheese or margarine tubs, or other repurposed plastic containers. They usually aren’t considered “microwave-safe.” Additionally, when microwaving something covered in plastic wrap, do not let the plastic wrap touch the food—it may melt. To truly prevent chemicals from leaching into your food, consider moving food to glass or ceramic containers before microwaving. 

Another primary concern is about plastic disposable water bottles. The two main questions about these bottles are: is it safe to freeze plastic bottles? And is it safe to reuse single-use plastic bottles? Let’s tackle the first question…

Is it safe to freeze plastic disposable water bottles and then drink the water from them once it is thawed? The answer is yes! It is completely safe to do so. There have been numerous claims that dioxins, which are environmental pollutants, are leached from plastic bottles into water when the bottles are frozen. These claims, however, appear to be false, and that means our first “myth” about plastics has been busted! Plastics do not contain dioxins, and that by freezing plastic bottles, you may actually be inhibiting the release of chemicals into the water contained within. 

Digging a little deeper into the myths surrounding plastic water bottles—we move on to the second question that was presented: is it safe to drink the water from these disposable bottles, refill them, and then drink from them again? The short answer is yes, again! Reusing plastic water bottles is safe, as long as the bottle has not deteriorated. The only risk you may experience from re-using a water bottle is from natural bacterial growth as a result of lack of cleaning. In order to ensure this does not happen, bottles should be washed with hot, soapy water and dried between each use.

But what about all the advice to switch to non-plastic water bottles? This question leads us to the next huge headlining issue: Bisphenol A, or as it is sometimes abbreviated—BPA. We still don’t know much about the health effects (if there are any) of exposure to BPA. Animal studies have demonstrated that BPA exposure in utero and during early life can have adverse effects on reproductive system and brain development. But because it is difficult to do research of this kind in humans, we still don’t have all the answers. However, the U.S. National Toxicology Program has stated that there is “some concern” about the health and developmental risks of BPA exposure. 

With the potential health effects of BPA exposure unknown, you may want to seek alternatives to plastics that contain BPA. Fortunately, most single-use water bottles sold in the U.S. aren’t made from plastics containing BPA. That’s not to say you should keep purchasing these one-time-use bottles! Think of the impact that these bottles have on the environment…purchasing a reusable water bottle is much more environmentally friendly. But, some of them are made from materials that contain BPA. Because your bottle may sit out in the sun or in a hot car—making chemicals more likely to leach into the water—it is best to find a BPA-free bottle.  

Baby bottles are another instance in which BPA-free alternatives should be considered, especially because the limited evidence indicates that early life exposure may have a great impact. Glass bottles and BPA-free plastic bottles are great choices; polycarbonate bottles with the recycling code ‘7’ should not be used. Additionally, if you use infant formula, powdered formula has lower levels of BPA than liquid formula—BPA is found in the epoxy lining of food cans.

Even though there is limited information out there, the evidence suggests that we should continue to be cautious about plastics. Remember to wash out water bottles regularly if you plan to reuse them. And be sure to buy reusable water bottles that do not contain BPA. Taking these steps will help you protect yourself and your family from possible health risks. We don’t have all the answers, but in years to come, scientific testing will most likely improve and we will have a better understanding of the risks associated with plastics. For now, it’s better to remain cautious of the potential risks, just in case!

For more resources on these topics, and to see where we turned for our information, please visit the following links: Microwaving food in plastic: Dangerous or not?, Q&A: Bisphenol A and Plastics, Plastic Bottles: What do the claims about plastics involve?, and The Plastic Panic.

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