Dear Umbra,

I’ve been hearing a lot in the news lately about the dangers of certain kinds of plastic bottles. What’s the lowdown?

Thirstily,
Ginger
Littleton, Colo.

Dearest Ginger,

Always happy to be your source for the lowest lowdown around town. Today’s lowdown: Don’t use plastic bottles, and avoid canned food.

All the latest plastics hullabaloo is over bisphenol A, a component of many plastic products. Serious Gristoholic Readers have known for years now that BPA, in its role as an endocrine disruptor, probably poses threats to public health. These readers have been easy to spot at recent cocktail parties: they lounge about looking self-satisfied and say, “Oh, I knew that already,” when the topic of toxic plastic bottles comes up. Hence our motto: “Read Grist today, woo untold strangers with your wisdom tomorrow.”

The properties of BPA lend a hardness and durability to plastic products, and it is (or was) in many now infamous consumer items, including baby bottles and clear Nalgene bottles. (Nalgene has now forsworn BPA, as have Camelbak, Toys R Us, Playtex, and others.) It also lines food cans, such as might hold soup or beans. It leaches from all of these places into our food and then into our bodies; tests have found it lurking in our bodily fluids. In laboratory animals, low-dose exposure to BPA has been linked to cancer, diabetes, fertility problems, and behavior disorders.

Over the past decade, scientists have brought increasing pressure on the U.S. government to revisit its BPA-exposure standards, because said scientists keep finding probable harm at lower doses than the EPA safety level. The topic has been a continuing drama, especially over the past year. Some highlights: the U.S. government hired a firm to assess BPA toxicity, the firm ignored all the anti-BPA scientists and was later found to have links to the plastic industry, the FDA was forced to show its hand and found wanting in scientific rigor (shock!), and the National Toxicology Program came out with a tentatively anti-BPA draft. Then Health Canada opened a comment period on banning BPA, and major retailers and producers starting abandoning the BPA ship — all within the last few months.

The Environmental Working Group has a detailed timeline of BPA studies and political developments, which you may enjoy reading. You can also find info by searching Grist for “bisphenol A” — even just searching Ask Umbra for “bisphenol A” will get you scads of resources. I’ve put a few of the most relevant Grist links in this handy box for you:

Let me summarize a few of those resources and tips here, once again, so that we can all sleep easier at night. (Unless you have young babies — even switching to glass bottles may not convince your child to sleep through the night.)

Avoid using plastic bottles, plastic food containers, and canned food. Find your own way to mitigate the loss of convenience this causes you. Glass, stainless steel, frozen foods, and fresh foods are all useful resources for a plastics- and BPA-free diet. BPA is not in every plastic, but each plastic has its own problems (cheery Grist article on chemicals may help you here) — at least avoid vinyl, and any “Lexan” or No. 7 plastic that does not explicitly lack BPA. You would find such explicit lack of BPA via news from the manufacturer or, increasingly, on the packaging.

If you must use plastic, choose No. 1 PETE, No. 2 HDPE, No. 4 LDPE, or No. 5 PP, and eschew the rest. Tips on avoiding the nastiest plastics are found in handy guides such as those put out by Environment California, the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy, and the Environmental Working Group.

Scientists are still debating the toxicity of BPA. I advocate making a change in your plastics use now, if you haven’t already — not because the science is definitive, but because it looks like it will become so, because it’s not often that a potential toxin turns out to be safe, and because there are additional reasons to reduce plastic consumption and eat fresh foods over canned foods. I’m out of room, so if anyone needs to know the additional reasons, please write in.

Dramatically,
Umbra