Reducing Your Exposure to Plastics

Experts disagree about whether chemicals found in countless consumer plastics pose a health risk. Some consumers are waiting for them to sort it out. Others are taking steps now to avoid these products when possible.

There's no proof that typical low-level human exposure to bisphenol A (BPA) and phthalates is dangerous, but if you choose to limit your exposure, here are some tips:

  • Check the recycling codes on the bottom of containers. ShopSmart magazine, from Consumer Reports, recommends avoiding unmarked plastic containers and those with a recycling code of 3, 6 or 7. Instead, it suggests choosing plastics with recycling numbers of 2, 4 or 5.
  • Read ingredients panels. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) requires cosmetics and grooming products to list phthalates on their ingredients labels, with the exception of fragrances. Products containing these items may list one or more of the following ingredients:
    • Dibutylphthalate (DBP)
    • Dimethylphthalate (DMP)
    • Diethylphthalate (DEP)
  • Use care in the kitchen. Don't microwave plastic containers that aren't listed as microwavable, and throw them out if they're damaged. Some consumer groups suggest not heating plastic containers or putting them in the dishwasher, especially polycarbonates (hard, clear plastic -- most with a recycling code of 7). Consider eating fewer canned goods and plastic-packaged products
  • Consider alterative products. Some parents are switching to baby bottles made of glass or BPA/phthalate-free plastic and toddlers' sippy cups made of alternative plastics or stainless steel. Sporting goods stores are reporting increased interest in water bottles made of metal or alternative plastics. For brown-bagged office lunches, glass or ceramic dishes can replace those handier plastic containers.
  • Shop around. The nationwide outdoors outfitter REI has already cleared its shelves of bottles containing BPA and other businesses are following suit. Wal-Mart, the world's largest retailer, has pledged to stop selling polycarbonate bottles in early 2009. Nalgene, a leading maker of sports bottles, says BPA is safe but has stopped using it because of customers' concerns.
  • Take folic acid when pregnant. Doctors already recommend this B vitamin for pregnant women, and recent research on animals suggests that folate may protect fetuses from any potentially negative effects of BPA.
  • Speak up. Pressed by activists, California and the European Union have banned several phthalates in children's products. Canada's government has proposed banning polycarbonate baby bottles and otherwise restricting BPA. Some consumer groups are urging people to demand that legislators take further action. Or, if you think these products are safe and shouldn't be banished, you can also raise your voice about that.
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