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Dangers of Plastic Food Containers, Water Bottles, and Bisphenol A (BPA)

By Heather Levin

Do you ever think about all the plastic in your kitchen?

You probably have an entire drawer full of stuff, including reusable plastic containers that you use to store and reheat leftovers. After all, these things are handy. They’re lightweight, they store easily, and they’re cheap.

What’s not to love?

The Dangers of Plastic

What many people don’t think about is that many of their plastic dishes and storage containers are leaching chemicals into their food, especially if they’re using #3 or #7 plastics, or any hard plastic that’s “shatterproof.” These plastics contain Bisphenol A (BPA), a chemical that, once ingested, mimics estrogen in our bodies.

According to Scientific American, studies have shown that these chemicals can promote human breast cancer cell growth and lower sperm counts. Pregnant women, infants and children are especially at risk.

What’s more is that all of us have BPA in our systems. The U.S. Center for Disease Control (CDC) found traces of BPA in 93% of urine samples they took for a 2004 study.

Although some experts say we’re not being exposed to enough BPA to cause a fuss, other scientists disagree. Here’s a snippet from the Scientific American expose, Plastic (Not) Fantastic:

A recent report in the journal Reproductive Toxicology found that humans must be exposed to levels of BPA at least 10 times what the EPA has deemed safe because of the amount of the chemical detected in tissue and blood samples. “If, as some evidence indicates, humans metabolize BPA more rapidly than rodents,” wrote study author Laura Vandenberg, a developmental biologist at Tufts University in Boston, “then human daily exposure would have to be even higher to be sufficient to produce the levels observed in human serum.”

In short, because we have so much BPA stored in our tissue, we’re obviously ingesting more than what the EPA has deemed “safe.” The stuff is everywhere…even in the printed thermal store receipts we get every time we buy something.

The thing is, it’s not just BPA we need to worry about. Not using #3 and #7 plastics isn’t going to solve the problem by itself. All plastics leach chemicals into our food, and the FDA has admitted this.

Plastic does not last forever. The more it’s heated and cooled, and heated and cooled, the more the chemicals in that container begin to break down. And when they start to break down, they break down into the food inside. As a result, detrimental and expensive health issues can arise.

Thus, it’s important try to make reasonable efforts to replace plastic in our kitchens.

How to Create a Safer Kitchen

It’s almost impossible to have a 100% plastic-free kitchen. I tried last year, and failed miserably. After all, plastic is everywhere. It wraps our bread, it stores our peanut butter, and it holds our dried beans, gelato, and cinnamon. Just walk through the grocery store and try to fill up your cart with the things you need without buying anything plastic. It’s not easy.

However, there are steps you can take to create a safer, plastic-free kitchen.

1. If You Do Use Plastic, Never Heat It
When plastic is heated, says Scientific American, it leaches chemicals 55 times faster than normal. So, never ever heat food in a plastic container in the microwave, or pour hot food (especially liquid) into a plastic container. Even if it says “microwave safe” on it, it’s still going to leach chemicals. Microwave Safe simply means the container won’t warp in the heat.

If you do use plastic, stick to numbers 1, 2, 4, and 5. Those are safest.

This tip is especially true for baby bottles or containers where you place your homemade and healthy baby food recipes. Whenever you can, use glass baby bottles, or plastic bottles that specifically say “BPA-Free.” Don’t buy used plastic baby bottles at garage sales.

2. Use Glass or Stainless Steel Containers
The best step you can take to cut down on your use of plastic is to recycle all the plastic storage containers you have, and use glass or stainless steel instead. Remember those colorful glass Pyrex containers from the ’70s? You can pick them up for a song at garage sales and flea markets. Glass is safe, and it rocks.

I recycled all my plastic containers two years ago, and all my leftovers are stored in glass or stainless steel. Plus, my funky old Pyrex has way more character than generic Gladware.

3. Buy Fresh or Frozen Vegetables
BPA is in the lining of almost all canned food because it helps prevent corrosion and food contamination. Whenever you can, buy fresh or frozen food rather than canned food. Buy dried beans instead of canned. Buy fresh fruit over canned fruit. Or better yet, grow your own produce in your home garden. You get the idea.

4. Use a Stainless Steel Water Bottle
I use an Alex water bottle. It’s a stainless steel water bottle that actually unscrews in the middle so you can, get this, actually clean it. Yeah, it’s amazing, and it’s 100% BPA free.

If you have an older Sigg stainless steel water bottle, then keep in mind that the gold lining inside likely has BPA in it. There was a big fuss about this last year. Newer Siggs have a BPA-free lining.

5. Ditch the Deli Wrap
Do you know what number plastic your deli is using to wrap your cheese in? Me neither.

When you’re buying cut cheese and meat from your deli counter, ask them to wrap it in wax paper instead of plastic. If they won’t do it, then rewrap it yourself when you get home.

6. Learn from the Best
Beth Terry, blogger over at My Plastic Free Life, is arguably the expert when it comes to living without plastic. Reading her blog is probably the best way to learn how to eliminate plastic from your life. For instance, in 2010, she only used 2.18 pounds of plastic. Yes, she measures every scrap of plastic she uses.

Thats 2% of what you and I use yearly. Her efforts, and her story, are incredibly inspiring. You might also want to check out her awesome list, How to Store Produce Without Plastic.

Final Word

There’s no doubt I could be doing more to reduce my use of plastic. Looking around my kitchen, I see plastic everywhere. It’s storing my bag of chips, it’s keeping my boxed wine fresh, and it’s storing my coffee, popcorn seeds, and ketchup. You may even have plastic in your kitchen gadgets or utensils.

But I’ve at least been able to cut down on my use of plastic where it matters most. I also try to buy food in glass containers whenever I can.

What about you? Do you try to limit your use of plastic in the kitchen? Do you have any helpful tips for keeping it out?

(Photo Credit: Shutterstock)

Heather Levin
Heather Levin is a freelance writer based in Detroit, MI. She's passionately committed to living green, saving money, and helping others do the same in their life.

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  • http://budgetsrock.blogspot.com Melyssa

    For health reasons as well as trying to reduce clutter, I got rid of all but a handful of plastic ware in my home. For some reason, we have this fascination with having tons of tupperware. But then we had to keep the lids in another separate drawer, and we would even lose some. So I got rid of about 95% of them and just kept a couple. I bought a 6-peice set of glass storage containers and it is working awesome for us. I pair the lids with the containers, and we have reduced clutter in our cabinets.

    As far as cups are concerned, we use glasses and coffee cups. We have 4 plastic cups which we use in the bathroom for mouth rinsing. Getting stainless steel water bottles are next on the list.

  • http://firstgenamerican.com First Gen American

    This article has quite a few major errors in it. I hope this is taken as constructive criticism because I hate it when the wrong information is spread around on the internet.

    First, the EPA is not the governing body for food contact applications, it’s the FDA. Therefore it’s the FDA that is going to be the one that determines safety levels in food packaging applications.

    Second, not all item 7 recyclable plastics contain BPA. This is a catch all recycling category that is categorized as “other”. This has all kinds of random stuff in it.

    Third, Category 3 plastic concerns are not related to BPA at all but phthalates potentially leaching out of PVC products.

    The scientific american article your reference actually says that the scientific community is divided on the safety of BPA.The studies that proved it unsafe have been performed at exposure levels that are orders of magnitude higher than what is detectable in humans from day to day exposure. This is critical because BPA is metabolised out of the body through your urine so it’s not something that builds up in your system like mercury.

    I think it’s important to have a safe and toxic free home environment but with all the misinformation on the safety of different things, it’s hard to know what the truth is anymore. In any exposure, one has to weigh the risks vs benefits. Before BPA containing plastic was used in food can liners, a lot of people died annually from botchulism from contaminated canned goods. To me, the low level of exposure I get from my canned goods is good trade off for not getting botchulism.

    I know the intent of the article was to be helpful so I’ll say I think your best tips are #1 +2 overheating plastic is a big no no and fresh veggies are the best. Tip 5- technically wax is polymer too, you’re essentially saying to ditch one plastic with another with that tip.

    We all have to pick our battles to determine what’s best for our family and I’m not one of the ones who will be ditching all my cans and water bottles. I feel okay with the data that’s out there on the FDA approved materials..
    I prefer to focus my energy on fresh foods and natural cleaners like vinegar.

  • http://www.mmgreatadventures.com Emily

    Hello! Great blog, I loved it! I’ve been committing to a green lifestyle, especially after hearing all of this information about harmful substances like BPA. It’s scary to know that plastic, a very commonly used material, contains this harmful material. One of the best decisions I made was switching to my stainless steel Klean Kanteen bottle. It’s made with kitchen-grade stainless steel. Therefore, it’s durable AND BPA free! You can’t beat that.

    Thanks for posting, keep up the great green work!

  • Rbackyard22

    The estrogen greatly concerns me. I felt good as a grandmother to have the little plastic applesauce etc. for the kids. But they are #7. This is a 2004 study so I wonder why it is taking so long to get it really out there. Canada has declared it toxic. The old ways are not always obsolete. Making baby food, sterilizing glass bottles, using real dishes to microwave, even using the oven to warm up food. Better than what we may be doing to all our bodies, day in and day out.

    • Heatherllevin

      You make a great point; the companies that make BPA are very powerful, and I’m sure they spend a lot of money lobbying to slow things down. This is why there aren’t that many studies about BPA out there. They’re doing whatever it takes to slow down (or bribe) Congress from taking action. It’s up to individuals to take their health, and the health of their families, into their own hands!

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