Beyond Baby Bottles: Are Common Plastics Safe?

Are your water bottle, baby's teething ring and other household plastics a health hazard? Industry groups say no. Government agencies are sending mixed messages. Some scientists say yes -- and some consumers and businesses are dumping these products.

A host of recent studies have found associations between chemicals in countless widely used plastics and disorders including birth defects, cancer, diabetes and heart disease. Here's a look at the products and health issues.

The plastics and the products

There are many types of plastics made from combinations of various chemicals. Recent medical studies have focused on two of these chemicals:

  • Bisphenol A (BPA). This compound has been used for half a century in hard polycarbonate plastics and in epoxy resins. BPA is found in the lining of food and beverage cans and in plastic goods including baby bottles, water bottles, food containers, eyeglasses, bike helmets, DVDs, electronics and car parts.
  • Orthophthalates. Better known as phthalates (pronounced tha-lates), this group of chemicals is used to soften vinyl and polyvinyl chloride (PVC). Phthalates are found in products such as soaps, shampoos, deodorants, cosmetics, water pipes, shower curtains, toys, electrical wires, medical tubing and vinyl flooring.

Another place these chemicals can now be found: in human blood and urine. Critics say they can break down and leach out of products, especially if heated. We're exposed to them not just through plastics but also through the food we eat and even the air we breathe, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) says.

Some researchers describe BPA and phthalates as environmental estrogens because they may act like female hormones. They are also sometimes called endocrine disruptors because of their effect on the endocrine system, which regulates reproduction and growth.

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