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I’m a fun collector of the 1950 and 1960 pre-plastics such as Lucite and Bakelite. I love the way it looks and the cool kitsch colours and style. But it did get me thinking about how plastics have really taken over our jewelry, cosmetic, and foods, and what are we really doing to our bodies, unwittingly.

When it comes to food storage, plastics were introduced into our lives as a fantastic and cheap way to make life easier. But we don’t think twice about what chemicals are used to make these plastics or could that squeezable bottle of tomato sauce be making use sick.

Phthalates What are phthalates and Bisphenol A?

In the wake of news today linking baby powder, lotion and shampoo to higher levels of phthalates and BPAs in babies’ bodies, many parents are looking for answers about avoiding products that contain them.

The big no, no is a plasticizer called phthalates. Phthalates are a class of widely used industrial compounds known technically as dialkyl or alkyl aryl esters of 1,2-benzenedicarboxylic acid. They are used as softeners of plastics, oily substances in perfumes, additives to hairsprays, lubricants and wood finishers.

Bisphenol A (BPA) is a chemical found in polycarbonate plastic items or containers such as drink bottles. There is public concern over the presence of BPA in food, particularly foods that babies and small children eat.

How could they be affecting your health?

Phthalates are known as “endocrine disruptors” because they mimic the body’s hormones and have, in laboratory animal tests, been shown to cause reproductive and neurological damage. California banned the use of phthalates in toys and baby products in 2009.

While high doses of phthalates do constitute risks in the sense of traditional toxicology, these low doses change the stakes dramatically. Earl Gray’s laboratory at the US Environmental Protection Agency, reveals that male reproductive development is acutely sensitive to some phthalates. For example, the phthalates dibutyl phthalate (DBP) and diethylhexyl phthalate (DEHP) produced dramatic changes in male sexual characteristics when exposure took place in utero, at levels far beneath those of previous toxicological concern. These changes included increases in the rates of hypospadias and other indications of demasculinisation.

A sudy in Bulgaris showed an association between concentration of DEHP in indoor dust and wheezing among preschool children in Bulgaria.

FSANZ carried out a targeted analytical survey of the levels of BPA in food in Australia in the same year. This survey supported our previous conclusions that Australian consumers are exposed to extremely low levels of BPA through food. But its still important to be aware.

Full study:

What can you do?

Read the ingredients. You can identify phthalates and BPAs in some products by their chemical names, or abbreviations:

Be wary of the term “fragrance,” which is used to denote a combination of compounds, possibly including phthatates, which are a subject of recent concern because of studies showing they can mimic certain hormones.

Choose plastics with the recycling code 1, 2 or 5. Recycling codes 3 and 7 are more likely to contain BPAs or phthalates.

What to lookout for:

DBP (di-n-butyl phthalate) and DEP (diethyl phthalate) are often found in personal care products, including nail polishes, deodorants, perfumes and cologne, aftershave lotions, shampoos, hair gels and hand lotions. (BzBP, see below, is also in some personal care products.)

DEHP (di-(2-ethylhexyl) phthalate or Bis (2-ethylhexyl) phthalate) is used in PVC plastics, including some medical devices.

BzBP (benzylbutyl phthalate) is used in some flooring, car products and personal care products.

DMP (dimethyl phthalate) is used in insect repellent and some plastics (as well as rocket propellant).

Polyethylene terephthalate (PET or PETE)
Used to make soft drink, water, sports drink, ketchup, and salad dressing bottles, and peanut butter, pickle, jelly and jam jars.
GOOD: Not known to leach any chemicals that are suspected of causing cancer or disrupting hormones.

High density polyethylene (HDPE)
Milk, water, and juice bottles, yogurt and margarine tubs, cereal box liners, and grocery, trash, and retail bags.
GOOD: Not known to leach any chemicals that are suspected of causing cancer or disrupting hormones.

Polyvinyl chloride (V or PVC)
Most cling-wrapped meats, cheeses, and other foods sold in delicatessens and groceries are wrapped in PVC.
BAD: To soften into its flexible form, manufacturers add “plasticisers” during production. Traces of these chemicals can leach out of PVC when in contact with foods. According to the National Institutes of Health, di-2-ethylhexyl phthalate (DEHP), commonly found in PVC, is a suspected human carcinogen.

Low-density polyethylene (LDPE)
Some bread and frozen food bags and squeezable bottles.
OK: Not known to leach any chemicals that are suspected of causing cancer or disrupting hormones, but not as widely recycled as #1 or #2.

Polypropylene (PP)
Some ketchup bottles and yogurt and margarine tubs.
OK: Hazardous during production, but not known to leach any chemicals that are suspected of causing cancer or disrupting hormones. Not as widely recycled as #1 and #2.

Polystyrene (PS)
Foam insulation and also for hard applications (e.g. cups, some toys)
BAD: Benzene (material used in production) is a known human carcinogen. Butadiene and styrene (the basic building block of the plastic) are suspected carcinogens. Energy intensive and poor recycling.

Other (usually polycarbonate)
Baby bottles, microwave ovenware, eating utensils, plastic coating for metal cans
BAD: Made with biphenyl-A, a chemical invented in the 1930s in search for synthetic estrogens. A hormone disruptor. Simulates the action of estrogen when tested in human breast cancer studies. Can leach into food as product ages.


Keep your glass jars

Don’t microwave plastic

Reheat in glass or saucepans

Buy food for markets, co-ops or places where you can buy in bulk but without the use of plastic packaging

Other benefits:

Lower volume of plastics in our landfills and overall it will be helping the environment.

4 Australian States and Territories have banned high-density polyethylene (HDPE) plastic bags. Tasmania banned HDPE bags on May 29, 2013 after South Australia had already banned the bags in May 2009, the Northern Territory in September 2011 and the Australian Capital Territory (ACT) in November 2011.

The Tasmanian ban applies to non-biodegradable, lightweight HDPE bags less than 35 µm thick. The ban will come into force in November 2013. Biodegradable bags continue to be allowed under the ban.

Interesting information for FSANZ:

(May 2012) Chemicals in food packaging

FSANZ analysed 65 foods and beverages packaged in glass, paper, plastic or cans for chemicals including phthalates, perfluorinated compounds, epoxidised soybean oil (ESBO), semicarbazide, acrylonitrile and vinyl chloride.

The survey results were very reassuring with no detections of phthalates, perfluorinated compounds, semicarbazide, acrylonitrile or vinyl chloride in food samples.

ESBO, which is produced from soybean oil and is used in a range of plastics to give the plastic safe and airtight mechanical properties to form a good seal between a food container and its lid, was detected at very low levels in a small proportion of samples analysed. These levels were well below international migration limits set by the European Union and don’t pose a risk to human health and safety.

Survey of chemical migration from food contact packaging materials in Australian food

Phthalates in beverages and foods in Taiwan –

The survey builds on the FSANZ survey of bisphenol A (BPA) in foods published in 2010.

International Food Chemical Safety Liaison Group

How they set the standards:

Contaminants and Natural Toxicants