Plastics play a major role in the modern era. We microwave our food in plastic containers. We carry plastic water bottles on hikes and biking trips. We use them to make all kinds of things — from furniture to toys. They offer convenience, flexibility, and strength. The bad news is that they can release harmful toxins into our food, water, and the environment.
Because of the widespread use of plastics, experts are taking a closer look at their possible health risks. The chemicals that people are most concerned about are phthalates and bisphenol A (BPA). Today, more and more plastic products that used to be made with bisphenol A no longer contain it. You may have heard of BPA-free bottles or food containers.
How can people be exposed to chemicals in plastics?
Some plastic containers can release chemicals into the things they’re holding — like food and drinks. When people eat or drink what was in the container, they can be exposed to (come in contact with) the chemicals in the plastic. This happens most often if the food or drinks are heated in plastic containers
It’s also possible to be exposed to chemicals found in plastics through air, dust, and water.
How can plastics affect my health?
Early studies about the health effects of chemicals from plastics show that they may affect the:
- Endocrine system (the system that controls hormones, or the chemicals that regulate metabolism)
- Reproductive systems (the male and female systems that allow us to have babies)
- Immune system (the system that helps keep you from getting sick)
Evidence also suggests that chemicals from plastics can cause behavior problems.
These health risks are worse for babies and children. There’s also concern about the health effects of using plastics over many years.
If you’re worried your health has been affected by plastics, talk with your doctor at your next checkup.
Did you know ?
The United States produces nearly 100 billion pounds of plastic each year.
Explore the links below to learn more about plastics, including what you can do to protect yourself — and what experts are doing to keep you safe.
CONSUMER GUIDE: Phthalates and Bisphenol A (PDF, 170.02 KB)(Association of Occupational and Environmental Clinics) - PDF describing what BPA is, where it is found, how to avoid it, and possible health effects.
Bisphenol A (Food and Drug Administration) - Gives an overview of bisphenol A (BPA), current FDA perspectives, references to studies, and public reactions to BPA.
Bisphenol A (Tox Town - National Library of Medicine) - Describes what bisphenol A is, how students can be exposed to it, and pertinent health effects.
Phthalates (Tox Town - National Library of Medicine) - Information on what phthalates are, how exposure occurs, and associated health effects.
Plastics - Danger Where We Least Expect It? (PDF, 700.14 KB)(Harvard School of Public Health) - Information on the dangers of plastic: public health threats, regulations, solutions, and signs of change.
Farmtastic Plastic (National Library of Medicine) - In this animated adventure, Polly Mer guides Olivia through the process of “growing” plastics on a plastics farm, introducing her to concepts such as monomers and polymers in a game-like environment.
Phthalamon: Phthalates and Your Health (National Library of Medicine) - This lighthearted animation tackles phthalates, the chemicals used to make plastics more durable and flexible, and the risks they present to human health.
Super Mallio Brothers (National Library of Medicine) - This parody on a classic video game teaches students about the dangers of the chemicals used in the production of plastics for the environment and human health.
World of Plasticraft (National Library of Medicine) - Journey with Pollymer and two gameworld adventurers to a faraway land of Plasteroth. Here, leading a quest to forge the powerful Recy’clar sword, she will explain the different types of plastics and their recycling programs.