Plastic is one of the most prevailing materials on the planet today. It’s used for anything you might imagine. Start from plastic cutlery to plastic bottles of water to plastic packaging for food. Your kitchen appliances, bathroom supplies, or even your clothes may all contain plastic.
Annually, we are producing over 300 million tons of plastic, half of which is single-use plastic that we throw minutes after using it. The worst part is that plastic remains for hundreds of years around after it’s dumped. And we dump a lot of it. Over 8 million tons of plastic gets deposited in the ocean every year5.
We have contaminated the planet with so much plastic that you can find it in the remotest of places. Plastic is floating in the deepest trench in the world, the Mariana Trench in the Western Pacific Ocean7. Plastic has even reached Earth’s last resorts of total wilderness, such as Antarctica14.
With that much plastic, we may as well be living on a plastic planet. And while plastic is hazardous to the environment, it’s not very friendly to your health either.
How bad is plastic for human health?
Bad enough, since some types of plastic cause cancer2.
You are right to worry and legitimately to ask yourself: should I drink water from a plastic bottle, or should I eat food that is contained from a plastic package?
The answers to questions like these primarily depend on what type of plastic contains the beverage or food you are about to consume.
Some plastics are reusable, but others begin to release toxic substances after several uses. There are also types of plastic that are better to be avoided at all costs, such as foam food containers3.
The seven most used types of plastic
PETE or PET (polyethylene terephthalate) is the first of the seven most commonly used types of plastic. It is usually found in food and drink packaging. When you buy a bottle of water, it’s probably PET plastic. PET is a robust and impenetrable type of plastic that is likely to be picked up for recycling. However, research has shown PET leaches antimony trioxide, which is a contaminant that poses both acute and chronic health effects in drinking water17. Antimony trioxide has also been “reasonably anticipated to be a human carcinogen” by the U.S. National Toxicology Program2.
In 2009, scientists at Goethe University in Frankfurt found that PET plastic leaches estrogenic compounds in bottled water. Similarly to another infamous chemical substance known as BPA (bisphenol-A) that is present in other types of plastic, PET’s estrogenic compounds can affect the reproductive system and embryonic development in humans4.
Tip: It’s best to avoid PET plastic. Especially avoid drinking water that has stayed in the bottle for too many days, or that has been exposed to heat. The longer water stays in plastic bottle container, the higher the chances the plastic leaches hazardous substances into it. If you really want to drink high-quality water, look for water that is rich in hydrogen.
High-Density Polyethylene (HDPE) is the second of the seven most commonly used types of plastic. This is a denser type of plastic and is usually utilized for grocery bags or products you’ll easily spot in your bathroom, such as your shampoo. HDPE is also used for milk and juice bottles. HDPE is a generally safer type of plastics, although there are indications it can also leach estrogenic compounds1,3.
Polyvinyl Chloride (PVC) is frequently found in children’s toys, medical equipment such as medical tubing and blood bags, as well as detergent bottles and food packaging. Your shower curtains may also be from PVC, as might be more significant chunks of your household, such as your vinyl flooring. Unfortunately, PVC is one of the most hazardous types of plastic. It contains a variety of toxic chemicals, including bisphenol A (BPA)12.
PVC has been associated with several endocrine disorders, female and male infertility, early onset of puberty, as well as breast and prostate cancer and metabolic diseases such as polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS)9. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) classifies PVC as a “known human carcinogen”13.
Lastly, PVC may also contain chemicals associated with causing asthma, allergic reactions, and eczema8.
Tip: Try to avoid exposure to products containing PVC as much as possible.
Low-Density Polyethylene (LDPE) is a thinner form of plastic that is used for grocery bags, garbage bags, frozen food bags, and food packaging. While it’s one of the safer plastic options, it still leaches estrogenic chemicals just like other types of plastic1,3.
PP (polypropylene) is a heat-resistant plastic that is useful as a hot food container, and you’ll also find it in products such as disposable diapers. It seems to be a safer type of plastic since it’s more resilient to heat1.
PS (polystyrene/styrofoam) is the type of plastic used for your average foam food container and is quite dangerous. It can be especially hazardous if it interacts with hot food since it will leach styrene, a substance that has been linked to cancer 10. Styrofoam has also been linked to various other disorders, including disorders of the nervous system, cognitive impairments (memory and concentration problems), and vision and hearing loss, to name some10.
That is why in 2019, Maine and New York State made steps to ban styrofoam food containers, and these bans are likely to continue6.
Tip: Avoid hot food in foam containers.
Any other plastic that does not befall the above six types of plastic would fall under “other plastics,” and these may include types of plastic that are again linked with leaching toxic substances. One of them is polycarbonate, which is mainly used in electronics. It does contain the dangerous bisphenol A (BPA), which can contribute to serious conditions already mentioned above11.
Tip: It’s best that you avoid food and water packaging that is made from polycarbonates.
The world is currently making significant steps towards banning various plastic products. For instance, France has banned single-use plastics, and Australia has banned plastic bags. And Tunisia has sought convenient alternatives to plastic bags such as straw baskets15.
There is a lot more to be done since it is still nearly impossible to entirely avoid life with plastic. What you can do is try to minimize the usage of plastic. If possible, stick to safer types of plastic like HDPE and LDPE. Plastic products may contain information about what kind of plastic they’re using, so make some checks.
But don’t just rely on “BPA-free” certification. Simply because a plastic product has a “BPA-free” mark, it doesn’t mean it’s safe16.
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