Baltic Approaches to Handling Plastic Pollution under a Circular Economy Context
BALTIPLAST

How plastic additives affect your health

19 March 2024
The primary health threat associated with plastic arises from the presence of harmful chemicals within it. Hazardous chemicals serve as additives in all contemporary plastic manufacturing processes. It is crucial to minimize exposure by refraining from using plastics containing the most problematic additives, at the very least.
Technical details

To date, it has been estimated that around 13,000 chemicals are used to produce plastic, with the most commonly used being monomers, processing aids and additives. Out of those 13,000 chemicals, only  3,200 are verified, while hazard data is missing for 6,000 chemicals, which can potentially be harmful to health and the environment. Some plastic additives have been defined as endocrine disruptors, even at low concentrations. They can be associated with different diseases, including cancer, obesity, and reproductive disorders. Unborn and young children are particularly vulnerable because their hormone system is still in development. The most concerning groups of chemicals used in plastic production due to their presence in consumer goods and their known impacts on human health are described below.

Bisphenols

What are they used for?

Bisphenols are a group of chemical compounds with two hydroxyphenyl functionalities. Bisphenol A (BPA) is the most representative chemical of the bisphenol group and is one of the most commonly produced chemicals worldwide, with over three million tons produced annually. BPA used in plastic and plasticizers are strongly suspected of disrupting our hormone balance. BPA is mainly used as a monomer for polycarbonate (PC) plastics (65% of the volume used) and epoxy resins (30% of the volume used), which are the main components of the lining layer of aluminium cans. BPA can also be used as an antioxidant or as a plasticiser in other polymers (PP, PE and PVC).

Which plastic products can contain bisphenol?

They are present in many polycarbonate plastic products (including water bottles, food storage containers and packaging, sports equipment and compact discs), epoxy resin liners of aluminium cans, and also bisphenols are frequently used as a developer in thermal paper such as cash register receipts.

How can BPA affect your health?

Leaching of BPA commonly occurs by release from food and drink packaging and represents a source of exposure for humans. Exposure to endocrine-disrupting chemicals is associated with around 80 diseases, including testicular cancer, obesity, and reproductive disorders. The most susceptible are unborn and young children as their hormone system is still in development and they present increased vulnerability even to low doses.

What are the top tips to avoid exposure?

  • Avoid canned foods. Where fresh alternatives are not available, choose frozen
  • Avoid damaged plastic containers
  • Do not heat or microwave plastic containers
  • Avoid plastic food and drink containers labelled with the recycling code 7
  • Avoid handling thermal receipts
  • Choose BPA-free baby bottles and child cups. It is important to be aware that the alternatives to BPA have not been adequately tested. Glass and stainless steel containers are your safest bet. BPA-free labels unfortunately do not always mean the product is safe.

An interesting fact to know is that studies of human exposure to bisphenol A show that females had statistically higher concentrations than males; children had higher concentrations than adolescents, who in turn had higher concentrations than adults. Concentrations were lowest for participants with the highest household incomes.

Phthalates 

What are they used for?

Phthalic acid esters or phthalates are a family of additives used as plasticisers, mainly in PVC production. They add fragrance to products and make them more pliable. However, some phthalates have been defined as endocrine disruptors, even at low concentrations. PVC can contain 10%-60% phthalates by weight.

What plastic products can contain Phthalates?

Most of the products that are made from PVC can contain 10%-60% phthalates. Phthalates are in hundreds of products, such as vinyl flooring, lubricating oils, and personal-care products (soaps, shampoos, hair sprays). Some phthalates are in polyvinyl chloride plastics, which are used to make products such as plastic packaging, garden hoses, and medical tubing.

How can Phthalates affect your health?

Phthalates can easily leach into the environment during manufacturing, use and disposal. They are of great concern since they have been found in a wide range of environments. Phthalates are endocrine disruptors, and exposure to phthalates has been linked to breast cancer, developmental issues, decreased fertility, obesity and asthma.

What are the top tips to avoid exposure?

  • Avoid buying personal care products that contain “fragrance” or “perfume.” Choose products, which,  are typically labelled “DBP-free” or “Toxic Trio Free”
  • Avoid plastics for food preparation and storage: Food containers made from PVC plastics (i.e., number 3 plastics) contain phthalates, as do vinyl plastic cooking utensils, plastic food storage containers and plastic food packaging
  • Use glass, ceramic or metal for storage and preparation of hot foods. Avoid hot foods packaged in plastic and microwave in glass or ceramic, never in plastic
  • Choose natural materials for your home. Avoid vinyl shower curtains, vinyl flooring, plastic window treatments, and vinyl replacement windows

An interesting fact to know is that the European Union has restricted some phthalates since 1999, and the United States and Canada have similarly restricted their use since 2008, particularly in children’s toys or articles which young children may put in their mouths.

Flame retardants

What are they used for?

Plastic is commonly made from petroleum and therefore, burns well. To prevent plastic from burning too easily, flame retardants are added. These additives are used in various electronics and insulation materials, among other things. Flame retardants are toxic and do not break down easily in nature. When plastic burns in the open air, toxic dioxins are released. They have been used in many consumer and industrial products, since the 1970s, to decrease the ability of materials to ignite. Both inorganic and organic flame retardants have been used, there are three primary types of organic frame retardants: bromine (Br), chlorine (Cl) and phosphate (P).

What plastic products can contain flame retardants?

Flame retardants can be found in an array of products in furnishings (foam, upholstery, carpets, curtains), in electronics and electrical devices (computers, phones, household appliances), in transportation (seats, seat covers and fillings, bumpers, overhead compartments and other parts of automobiles, trains and aeroplanes) and in building construction materials (electrical wires and cables, thermal insulation foams, paint, adhesives and sealants).

How can flame retardants affect human health?

Adverse health effects may include endocrine and thyroid disruption, immunotoxicity, reproductive toxicity, cancer, and adverse effects on fetal and child development and neurologic function

What are the top tips to avoid exposure?

  • Because flame retardant chemicals accumulate in household dust, regularly use a wet mop to clean and remove dust particles and use a vacuum with a HEPA filter to clean your home. This will keep dust from being inhaled or ingested
  • When shopping for furniture, look for companies that avoid chemical flame retardants and instead use naturally fire-resistant materials
  • Wash hands, especially those of little children, often, to keep dust from attaching to food or fingers and being consumed
  • Increase the airflow in your home by simply opening your windows. Do this especially when you are cleaning and disturbing the dust in your home to protect yourself from breathing in what you’re stirring up

An interesting fact to know is that plastic products can be recycled into new products, but any additives from the old product end up in the new product because they cannot be removed during the recycling process most of the time. Rubik’s Cubes made from recycled materials were examined in 2017. Of these, 90% contained toxic flame retardants from discarded electronic devices.

Perfluorinated chemicals (PFCs)

What are PFCs used for?

These polymers are used for surface treatment on carpets, textiles or furniture and can be released as particles and possibly microplastics.

What plastic products can contain PFCs?

PFCs are used in many commercial and household products: clothing, textiles (carpets, furniture, drapes), non-stick cooking surfaces, fast food and microwavable food packaging, adhesives, and electrical wire insulation.

How can PFCs affect human health?

They accumulate mainly in organs such as the liver, kidney, brain and spleen. In animal studies, PFCs cause cancer, neonatal mortality, delays in physical development, and endocrine disruption. Higher maternal levels of PFCs are associated with delayed pregnancy, while in the case of men, higher PFC levels could compromise the inetegrity of the reproductive system.

What are the top tips to avoid exposure?

To avoid such substances in ingredients look out for terms like: PFAS, Perfluoroalkyl & Polyfluoroalkyl substances, PFOS, PFOA, GenX, Teflon, PFHxS.

Some practical tips include:

  • drink filtered water
  • avoid fabrics treated with PFAS-based stain and water-resistant chemicals listed above
  • use stainless steel & cast iron cookware
  • avoid fast food and microwaved products