The Norwegian Institute of Public Health found that 90% of those tested from 2016 to 2017 had eight different plasticizers in their urine.1 Plasticizers are colorless, odorless chemicals composed mostly of phthalates.2 They are used to change the elasticity of materials in the manufacturing process.
Plastic products and components have been integrated into most people’s daily lives. You can find them in shower curtains, take-out containers and storage bags — but did you know that clothing, paper coffee cups, tea bags, chewing gum and cigarette butts also contain plastic?3
Oceana International describes plastic material a little bit like a curious cat, finding places in the environment where it shouldn’t fit and being able to sneak in.4 Plastics can be found in seawater, sea salt, shellfish and whale stomachs and in your drinking water. One study in 2014 found 24 brands of beer all tested positive for plastic.5
In 2010, as evidence of the negative health effects of bisphenol-A (BPA) was being published and becoming accepted in the science community,6 Karin Michels, Harvard associate professor of epidemiology, was quoted in Harvard News, saying:7
“The nightmare scenario is that we one day find out that a lot more of our current disorders, including infertility and cancer, may be due to bisphenol A and only show up after cumulative exposure. But by then, we all have accumulated so much exposure that it’s too late to reverse the effects. You could say that about other substances just as much, but right now, bisphenol A is a top concern.”
According to the recent research data, the first rung of the nightmare scenario may be here, as the ubiquitous use of plastic chemicals and plasticizers has, in turn, allowed them to accumulate in people, including children.8
Plasticizer Chemicals Found in 90% of People Tested
The data released by the Norwegian Institute of Public Health were part of EuroMix, a European project focused on identifying risk assessment for exposure to multiple chemicals using techniques proposed by The Joint Research Centre of the European Commission.9
Their aim is to provide data to refine risk assessment relevant to food safety and public health and provide information to industry and regulatory bodies. In one recent study,10 a team analyzed urine from 44 men and 100 women residing In Norway.11
The early findings show the presence of the chemicals, but further assessment is needed to define the quantity found in individuals. The scientists measured three groups of chemicals including plasticizers, bisphenols and parabens. The data revealed eight different plasticizers in 90% of those tested.
Plasticizers are found in plastic products and can leak out of product packaging. They are also found in personal care products, such as hand cream, toothpaste, shaving products and shower gel. In addition to phthalates, 90% of the participants’ urine tested positive for bisphenol-A and triclosan. Interestingly, the researchers found the level of bisphenol in the urine was positively related to the participant’s consumption of bread, edible fats and a variety of drinks.
Nearly 50% had parabens in their urine, though it was found more often in women than in men. While parabens are used as preservatives in food, they’re also commonly found in personal care products and cosmetics.
The scientists believe the number of chemicals found was lower than would be measured in the general population as the participants were not representative of the Norwegian general public — for instance, no one in the survey smoked and all of the participants had higher education. Trine Husøy led the research project for EuroMix and spoke with a Norwegian news agency about the findings:12
“Finding so many different chemicals in people’s urine is worrying. In contrast to natural substances, some synthetic substances can accumulate in the food chain, and many of these are particularly dangerous to our health. We will investigate this further.
Products that remain on the skin often contribute more than products that are washed off. Foods packed in plastic packaging will contain more plasticizers.”
Have a Bite of Phthalates With Your Meal
Since the chemicals are not strongly bound to the product, with use they leach out and dissipate into the surrounding environment, including your drinking water and food. Have you noticed how flexible plastics can get hard and more brittle over time?
That’s because the plasticizers are continuously released and eventually change the chemical composition of the product you’re using. Although phthalates are “reasonably considered to be a human carcinogen” by the National Toxicology Program,13 the politics of plastics and regulation have allowed them to remain in many of the products you use every day.
One study sought to evaluate your risk of exposure to phthalates from food.14 Researchers analyzed the habits and urinary metabolites of 8,877 participants who were age 6 and older and discovered those who ate at fast-food restaurants had a greater excretion of di(2-ethylhexyl) phthalate (DEHP) and diisononyl phthalate (DiNP) than those who did not eat fast food.
This study evaluated the participants’ exposure and not the potential health effects, finding there was a dose-dependent relationship between the amount of fast food eaten and the level of phthalates in urinary metabolites.
Interestingly, when the scientists evaluated the type of phthalates absorbed, they found the participants who ate more condiments, potatoes and vegetables from fast food had a higher level of DEHP, and those who ate more meat and grains had higher levels of DiNP metabolites.
If plasticizers and other plastic chemicals leaching into your food isn’t enough, maybe you would like to consider eating food made from plastic? The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) awarded Iowa State University and partners a $2.7 million grant to develop a process that makes food from plastic and paper waste.15 They intend to feed U.S. military men and women this “nourishment” to improve military logistics for extended missions.
They estimate the total grant award may reach $7.8 million before the project ends. Although the initial intent is to feed military personnel, it may not be long before such a system would be proposed as a means of providing inexpensive foodstuffs for others.
A press release from Iowa State University even suggested the process could “go a long way toward solving looming problems of plastic disposal and ensuring a viable global food chain.”16
Ingestion of Plastic Particles May Start in Infancy
Around the world, the baby bottle industry was valued at $2.6 billion in 2018 and the plastic segment accounted for 44.1% of the overall share.17 If you are currently using plastic bottles for your baby, consider switching to glass since research has shown microplastics may be released from the bottle into the contents.18
To collect the data, the scientists used new, cleaned and sterilized polypropylene bottles filled with water.19 After shaking the bottles for one minute, they analyzed the contents and discovered microplastics were being released into the water, sometimes at a level of up to 16 million plastic particles per liter.
The average bottle tested reached 4 million particles for every liter of water. These are microplastic particles that end up in your baby’s food. Researchers predict that worldwide, infants up to 12 months may be exposed to 14,600 to 4.55 million microplastic particles every day.20
In the study, researchers use purified water and not standard drinking water.21 Since standard drinking water also contains microplastics,22 this means the number may have been significantly underestimated.
In one literature review that calculated the amount of plastic the average person consumes, researchers estimated the average person drinks 1,769 plastic particles from tap water every day.23 In the U.S., 94.4% of all tap water samples contained plastic fibers, as did 82.4% of samples from India and 72.2% of samples from Europe.
Health Issues Linked to Heavyweight Hormone Disrupters
Scientists recognize that the health effects of plastics and the chemicals that create them are both direct and indirect.24 Many of the health effects attributed to BPA — hundreds of animal studies have linked BPA to abnormal development of the brain, breast and prostate — are likely related to the fact it is a synthetic hormone that mimics estrogen,25 much like phthalates.26
Phthalates are remarkably powerful hormone disruptors capable of causing males in many species to develop feminine characteristics.27 This conclusion was reached after an evaluation of the damage to the reproductive health of wildlife, but the results are relevant to humans as well, due to similar sex hormone receptors.
By disrupting the endocrine system, phthalates may cause testicular cancer, low sperm count, genital malformation and infertility found in animal species including whales, deer, otters and bears to name a few.
One study published by the American Chemical Society found pregnant women exposed to phthalates in food packaging, personal care items and other products had an increased risk of miscarriage between Weeks 5 and 13 of pregnancy.28
A research team from Columbia University found women with high levels had babies who had higher risk of developing asthma between ages 5 and 11.29 Researchers were forced to compare women with the highest level against those with the lowest level of phthalates as they did not find anyone with a zero level.
Exposure during pregnancy can also alter the production of thyroid hormones in the unborn child, which are critical for proper development in the first trimester.30 Women with high levels of DEHP during pregnancy had double the risk a male child would develop a hydrocele, a buildup of fluid in the scrotum that increases the size of the scrotum and causes discomfort.31
Adults also experience the negative effects of phthalates in the body including lower vitamin D levels with a higher intake of phthalates.32 Low levels of vitamin D are linked to a variety of different health conditions, including depression,33 cognitive decline in older adults,34 chronic migraine headaches35 and poor outcomes from COVID-19 infections.36
Tips to Reduce Your Use of Toxic Chemical Products
Considering research confirms that environmental estrogens have multigenerational effects,37 it is wise to take proactive steps to limit your exposure. This is particularly important for younger people who have more years to accumulate plastic pollution and may be more vulnerable to its effects during development.
While it’s virtually impossible to steer clear of all sources, you can minimize your exposure by keeping some key principles in mind. Start the process slowly and make the changes a habit in your life so they stick.
Avoid plastic containers and plastic wrap for food and personal care products. Store food and drinks in glass containers instead.
Avoid plastic children’s toys. Use toys made of natural substances, such as wood and organic materials.
Read labels on your cosmetics and avoid those containing phthalates.
Avoid products labeled with “fragrance,” including air fresheners, as this catch-all term may include phthalates commonly used to stabilize the scent and extend the life of the product.
Read labels looking for PVC-free products, including children’s lunch boxes, backpacks and storage containers.
Do not microwave food in plastic containers or covered in plastic wrap.
Frequently vacuum and dust rooms with vinyl blinds, wallpaper, flooring and furniture that may contain phthalates, as the chemical collects in dust and is easily ingested by children and can settle on your food plates.
Ask your pharmacist if your prescription pills are coated to control when they dissolve as the coating may contain phthalates.
Eat mostly fresh, raw whole foods. Packaging is often a source of phthalates.
Use glass baby bottles instead of plastic. Breastfeed exclusively for the first year if you can, to avoid plastic nipples and bottles altogether.
Remove your fruit and vegetables from plastic bags immediately after coming home from the grocery store and wash before storing them; alternatively, use cloth bags to bring home your produce.
Cash register receipts are heat printed and often contain BPA. Handle the receipt as little as possible and ask the store to switch to BPA-free receipts.
Use natural cleaning products or make your own.
Replace feminine hygiene products with safer alternatives.
Avoid fabric softeners and dryer sheets; make your own to reduce static cling.
Check your home’s tap water for contaminants and filter the water if necessary.
Teach your children not to drink from the garden hose, as many contain plasticizers such as phthalates.
Use reusable shopping bags for groceries.
Take your own leftovers container to restaurants. Avoid disposable utensils and straws.
Bring your own mug for coffee and bring drinking water from home in glass water bottles instead of buying bottled water.
Consider switching to bamboo toothbrushes and brushing your teeth with coconut oil and baking soda to avoid plastic toothpaste tubes.