I Am Therefore I Suck on Things
If you are ever around babies you know that they put everything in their mouths. This is nature’s way of ensuring that nourishment will make its way into their bodies. But it’s also their main strategy for understanding the world. They are avid learners and they explore the shape and size of an object by gumming it enthusiastically.
So it’s important that we let them put things in their mouths… but we have to be sure that those things are safe for their slobbery little selves.
Public Enemy Number 1: BPA
One of the most dangerous chemicals in plastic products is bisphenol A (BPA). BPA is an endocrine disruptor. It upsets the body’s hormonal balance and can have developmental, reproductive, and neurological effects.
BPA can leach from plastic objects into foods and liquids, especially when they are heated.
In 2012 the Federal Food and Drug Administration (FDA) banned BPA from baby bottles and sippy cups. Problem solved?
No, in fact this limited regulation has been very ineffective. First, the ban does not apply to many products children put in their mouths. Furthermore, many companies have simply replaced BPA with other endocrine disruptive chemicals. This phenomenon is known as “regrettable substitution” because the new chemicals are also dangerous or have yet to be studied. We are engaged in a game of “whack-a-mole.” Just as we get rid of one dangerous chemical another pops up.
BPA Is Still Being Found in Things Children Suck On? You Have GOT to be Kidding!
In fact, some children’s products that are specifically labeled “BPA free” have been found to contain it anyway.
In an influential study published in 2016, Dr. Kurunthachalam Kannan and his associates tested 59 plastic baby teethers – including solid, gel-filled, and water-filled models – from 23 brand names. Nearly all the teethers were advertised as being “BPA free.” However, the researchers found BPA in almost every product along with 15 to 20 other endocrine-disrupting compounds. And they found that the compounds leached out of the products’ surfaces into water.
The need for better government regulation and oversight could not be clearer or more urgent.
Phthalates: Dangerous to Ingest, Annoying to Spell, and Impossible to Pronounce
BPA isn’t the only dangerous chemical found in children’s products. Many of them contain phthalates (pronounced “THAY-lates”), a class of chemicals used to make plastic soft and flexible (or, you might say, more suckable).
Accordingly, they can be found in baby toys, rattles, teethers, rubber ducks, and bath books. They are also in personal care products like baby shampoo, soap, and lotion.
Studies find an association between phthalate exposure and reproductive problems including testicular cancer, decreased fertility in males, and early puberty in females.
While several phthalates are banned from products marketed to very young children, many of them are not. The Consumer Product Safety Commission very optimistically suggests that manufacturers are obligated “to ensure that any alternative plasticizer used is adequately tested.”
One More Thing, and It’s Not Good News….
While we may smile approvingly when we hear the term “recycle,” it’s important to remember that recycled plastic is often contaminated with industrial chemicals. These chemicals are associated with cancer and thyroid dysfunction, as well as brain development.
When I recycle my old laptop, some of its constituent chemicals (OctaBDE for example) end up contaminating the recycling stream, which is then used to make plastic toys. Studies by IPEN, a global network of NGOs, suggest that 90% of children’s toys contain electronic waste contaminants.
This problem also highlights the challenges of operating in a global marketplace. Countries that produce cheap plastic exports lean heavily on recycled products, typically with little oversight at the national or regional level.
Silicone: An Acceptable Alternative to Conventional Plastic
Silicone baby bottles, teethers, and pacifiers are often recommended as a healthier alternative to products made of traditional plastic. Silicone pouches can be used instead of plastic containers to store food in the refrigerator or instead of single-use plastic wrap to pack food for a child’s lunchbox.
Silicone is no angel. While many people think it is natural, it is actually a synthetic product containing chemical additives derived from fossil fuels. Like plastic, it takes a very long time to degrade in the landfill. However, neither is it a devil. Check out the excellent book “Life without Plastics,” for a careful review of the existing research and a cautious endorsement of silicone products for household use.
Given All This, What Can You Do?
Here are five specific ideas for lessening children’s chances of exposure to BPA and phthalates from plastics.
- Use glass or silicone baby bottles with silicone or natural rubber nipples. There are many on the market these days.
- Use silicone teethers and pacifiers instead of plastic. Or substitute something natural….a frozen bagel perhaps?
- Avoid heating food or liquids in plastic containers, and never heat up plastic wrap.
- Buy toys that are made of cloth, metal, or wood.
- Avoid all plastics with the recycling codes 3, 6, and 7. These codes indicate the likely presence of BPA or other endocrine disruptors and phthalates (as well as PFAS, another class of toxic substances described in my post on synthetic turf).
The Elephant in the Room: Diapers
Some changes are not so easy to make. You may feel this way about disposable diapers. However, disposable diapers contain plasticizing chemicals, with the attendant health risks. In fact, even the fragrance of some diaper brands is brought to you courtesy of phthalates. For a complete rundown on the chemicals present in disposable diapers, check outwww.wholesomechildren.com/mom-life/toxic-chemicals-in-disposable-diapers/
One child goes through a lot of diapers, as any diaper-changing caregiver knows. An estimated 20 billion diapers a year go into US landfills where they fester for 300 years or so.
If cloth diapers are not in your future, note that several companies offer alternatives to plastic diapers, including diapers made from bamboo. Products made from bamboo are ecologically sustainable because bamboo is fast growing and does not require pesticides or anti-fungal agents. Check out babytooshy.com to see some alternatives and use their calculator to help you compare the cost of various options.
Et Tu, Cash Register Receipts?
I feel compelled to include a note of warning about cash register receipts even though they are not plastic. Cash register receipts are printed with ink that contains BPA or, more recently BPS. This is particularly dangerous because the chemical rubs off easily when the paper is handled.
Try not to accept paper receipts, wash your hands after touching one, and don’t let children play with them!
You Shouldn’t Need to Know All This!
You should not have to become a biochemist in your spare time just to keep children safe from the toxic chemicals in rubber duckies. And neither should I! I was a psychology major! I would rather take a hike than learn about phthalates!
To take the onus off the consumer, please consider supporting one of the advocacy organizations listed below. Write to your political representatives stating your concerns or send a letter to a baby product company urging them to find nonplastic alternatives. Let’s work together to elect people who support environmental sustainability over corporate profit.
To Learn More….
I highly recommend this authoritative and readable book by two lawyers, one of whom is also a biochemist: Life without Plastic: The Practical Step-by-Step Guide to Avoiding Plastic to Keep Your Family and the Planet Healthy. In addition to explaining the science behind the toxic effects of plastics, authors Chantal Plamondon and Jay Sinha provide many practical suggestions for eliminating plastics from your home, including a list of environmentally sustainable products in just about every category you can think of from feminine hygiene to camping equipment.
For a concise, well-researched overview of the effects of plastic on your health, check out this article by Kevin Loria in Consumer Reports:
Find out why Senator Tom Udall of New Mexico warned that each of us is consuming a credit card’s worth of plastic every week.
Earth Justice is a nonprofit, public interest environmental law organization (earthjustice.org).
The Environmental Working Group is a non-profit organization dedicated to protecting human health and the environment (EWG.org).
The Plastic Pollution Coalition is a global alliance of organizations and businesses working to free the world of plastic pollution (plasticpollutioncoalition.org).
That’s it for this post of the EFM Notebook! Do you have comments on what you’ve read so far? Suggestions for future topics? Send me your thoughts at email@example.com.
Many thanks to Rob Badger and Nita Winter for sharing Rob’s beautiful image on the Notebook banner. Nita and Rob’s new award-winning call-to-action book, “Beauty and the Beast: California Wildflowers and Climate Change,” is available at www.wildflowerbook.com. To see more birds and other images visit www.winterbadger.com.