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Kids and Chemicals in Plastic: What Are the Risks?

By on July 16th, 2014 Categories: Uncategorized

No matter where you get your news, you’ve probably learned quite a bit about how chemicals in plastics could affect your health. It’s especially important to know that any concerns raised about how these chemicals affect adults are magnified when it comes to babies and young children.

There are a few reasons why babies and young children are more vulnerable than adults to environmental factors, including exposure to chemicals:

  • As you go up the food chain, there is “biomagnification” of chemicals. This means that as chemicals move up through the food chain, from insects to animals, to food products to people, they become more concentrated. The developing fetus in the womb and breastfeeding babies are at the very top of the food chain and get the highest dose of chemical exposure (both feed off the mother — that’s why they’re on the top of the food chain). Foods consumed at the top of the food chain have more chemicals in them than the foods eaten by small animals at the bottom of the food chain.
  • While babies, toddlers, and children are growing rapidly, chemicals can influence how their cells are built and run. Adults are fully grown, so chemicals don’t affect how their cells are built as much as children’s. Still, chemicals can affect how adult cells are run.
  • Babies and young children also aren’t as good as adults at getting things out of their systems. A baby’s immature liver and kidneys aren’t as good at removing toxins from the body as an adult’s liver and kidneys.
  • Babies seem to put everything they touch into their mouths, including plastic products such as pacifiers, key fobs, pet toys, flashlights, and cell phones.

State and federal policies have begun to limit the use of some chemicals in plastic. The two we’ve heard most about are bisphenol A (BPA) and phthalates. BPA is used to harden plastic. Phthalates are added to plastics to increase their flexibility and durability. Both are endocrine disruptors, which means they may be able to act like a hormone or affect how other hormones act in the body. Endocrine disruptors throw off the body’s hormonal balance by blocking or mimicking hormones. Because estrogen may make hormone-receptor-positive breast cancer develop and grow, many women try to limit their exposure to these chemicals that can act like estrogen and other hormones.

Babies and children should have as little exposure as possible to BPA and phthalates, too. I know it’s impossible to completely avoid BPA and phthalates since these chemicals are very common in our environment. Hormones or chemicals that act like hormones can produce different effects in the body depending on the exposure or dose. Even a low-level exposure over time could have a harmful effect, so it’s definitely a good idea to stay away from these chemicals as much as possible. Research has raised concerns about a link between BPA exposure in the womb as well as in infants and children and brain and behavior problems, as well as a higher lifetime risk for obesity, cancer, and other diseases. Other studies have linked phthalate exposure during childhood to a higher risk of allergies and reproductive and developmental problems.

What are the alternatives?

Because BPA and phthalates can leach out from plastic containers into liquids and foods, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) banned the use of BPA in baby bottles and sippy cups in 2012. BPA was banned from infant formula packaging in 2013. Some states also have banned BPA from reusable food and beverage containers.

In 2009, a federal law put a limit of 0.1% as the allowable amount of six common kinds of phthalates in children’s toys, feeding products, and teething rings.

In response to the concern, some manufacturers have started to use different plastics. More and more products are labeled “BPA-free” and “phthalate-free.” Some plastic wraps and sandwich bags are labeled BPA-free, which makes me feel better about using them. (Still, that’s only occasionally. Normally, I use aluminum foil or reusable glass containers for my leftovers.)

There’s still a lot that we don’t know. It’s not clear if the chemicals substituted for BPA and phthalates in plastic — such as bisphenol S — also have risks. There hasn’t been much research done on their health effects. One controversial European Union study raised questions about the plastics used in products for feeding babies. The study found that 92% of the BPA-free bottles tested released chemicals with “estrogenic activity.” Some of the chemicals had more estrogenic activity than BPA-containing products. Baby and water bottles made with polyethersulfone (PES) or polyethylene terephthalate glycol (PETG) released chemicals that had at least as much estrogenic activity as BPA-containing plastics. The bottles were much more likely to release chemicals when they were heated, creased, or heavily used.

Steps you can take

Some newer plastics are likely to be safer than the older plastics that contain BPA and phthalates, but they still could expose you and your family to unwanted endocrine disruptors. Still, because there are so many questions, clear answers on the safety of plastics could be years away. In the meantime, it’s better to be safe than sorry. Here are some steps you can take to limit your family’s exposure:

  • Whenever it’s possible and you’re able, breastfeeding is better for the baby and better for the mom.
  • Store pumped breast milk in jars (baby food jars are perfect).
  • Switch to glass or unlined stainless steel baby bottles. Although this sounds like a new concept, there are many brands of both glass and stainless steel baby bottles available now.
  • Avoid plastic bottle liners.
  • Avoid heating or cooking any baby food or drinks in plastics, even if they say “microwavable.”
  • Avoid using any plastic products with the #7 recycle code (check the number in the triangle imprinted on the bottom of the bottle). This includes the 5-gallon plastic jug that’s upside down in many water coolers.
  • Stop using all baby bottles, sippy cups, and any other water bottles or hard, clear plastic food storage containers that were made before 2012.
  • Use nipples and pacifiers made from medical-grade silicone.
  • Consider newer types of packaging for infant formula, such as Tetra Pak pouches, which may pose less of a risk. Tetra Pak is made of 70% paperboard combined with thin layers of low density polyethylene, the flexible plastic commonly used in water bottles labeled #1 for recycling, and aluminum.
  • Try to feed your infants/children as much unpackaged, freshly prepared food as possible to reduce contact with any plastics.
  • Avoid using vinyl products around babies as much as you can, since these products tend to contain phthalates. In particular, don’t use flexible plastic toys, such as plastic bath toys and teething rings. Choose medical-grade silicone or latex (if no allergies) teething rings instead.

With some effort, you can reduce the amount of plastic your children are exposed to. It’s almost impossible to live a completely plastic-free life, though. So I was excited to learn that there’s now a plastic bottle called PureBot that is labeled “EA-free.” “EA” stands for “estrogenic activity.” The manufacturer uses a low-density polyethylene plastic called PlastiPure that contains no estrogenic chemicals, no BPA, and no phthalates. If the claims are true, I hope that more manufacturers will switch to using this type of plastic in baby bottles, sippy cups, and grown-up cups and containers, too.

Are you trying to reduce how much plastic you use around your children? Do you have any tips to share?

Marisa Weiss, M.D. is the founder, president, and chief medical officer of Breastcancer.org, the world's most trafficked online resource for medically reviewed breast health and breast cancer information, reaching over 14 million visitors per year. A breast cancer oncologist with over twenty years of active practice in the Philadelphia region, Dr. Weiss is regarded as a visionary advocate for her innovative and steadfast approach to informing, empowering, and treating patients with breast cancer.

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