How Plastic Can Mess With Your Hormones and Contribute To Chronic Health Issues

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We Already Know Plastics Are A Nightmare For Our Environment. When most of us think of plastic, we think about the outrageous amount of pollution that’s piling up in all corners of the earth.

Plastic is showing up inside the bellies of seabirds, whales, and even the shellfish on your dinner plate and the average plastic water bottle will take 450 years to degrade. Yuck. I think we can all agree that plastics pose a significant threat to the health of the planet. But what many people don’t know is the extent to which plastics can pose a significant threat to our short and long-term health.

Plastics: The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly

Plastics come in thousands of different varieties, from the thin, soft, fabric-like exterior of a baby diaper, and the rigid plastic in our Nalgene bottles, food processors, and blenders, to bulletproof vests.

In a lot of ways, plastics have helped to make our lives better, easier and even safer; think: bike helmets, IV bags, and car bumpers. It’s lightweight, it’s durable (for better and worse), and it’s fairly inexpensive to produce.

But these plastics also leach chemicals that can mess with our hormones, stress our immune system, and even interfere with fertility and reproduction. Double yuck.

The plastic chemical with the worst rap right now?


BPA’s Bad Past & Worse Present

In the mid-1930’s, about 40 years after it was first synthesized, it was discovered that Bisphenol-a, or BPA, exhibited estrogenic properties, meaning that it behaves like and mimics the hormone estrogen.

By the 1940’s, BPA was being considered for “therapeutic use” to treat women’s “problems” related to menstruation, nausea during pregnancy, to prevent miscarriages, and for menopause. Diethylstilbestrol, a nasty chemical with its own horrible history, made the cut instead.

At the time, BPA was considered too weak an estrogen to be used pharmaceutically, but instead found its way into plastics, where it has remained for nearly 80 years.

This chemical is one of the highest volume production chemicals worldwide, with more than 10 million pounds produced each year; it’s in thousands of products that we encounter daily.

In the early 1990’s it was discovered that this synthetic estrogen was leaching from plastics into its surroundings, including the foods and beverages that we consume.

Plastics Shed Toxic Molecules

During the manufacture of plastics, chemicals are added to soften the material, add flexibility and resiliency or any of a number of other specific properties. Unfortunately, these added chemicals don’t have strong molecular bonds, and as a result, easily “shed” or migrate out into surrounding areas.

And this is a problem because many of these shedding molecules are not only ending up inside our bodies, they’re capable of messing with our health as well.

While nearly all types of plastics shed chemicals that mimic estrogen, the one that’s been studied the most is bisphenol-A. This chemical isn’t used in all types of plastic; it’s found in polycarbonate plastics, and in the lining of canned foods, in cash register receipts and a number of other places. And we’re all exposed.

Pulling from the 2003-2004 National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES III), the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) found detectable levels of BPA in 93% of people tested. That’s nearly all of us.

And this is a problem because a large body of research is indicating pretty clearly that exposure to BPA at all stages of life, can affect our health in serious ways.

Health problems linked to BPA exposure include:

  • heart disease
  • diabetes
  • insulin resistance
  • obesity
  • asthma
  • breast cancer
  • prostate cancer
  • recurring miscarriages
  • early onset puberty
  • reduced sperm count
  • and developmental and behavioral issues like hyperactivity, impaired learning, and delayed development

BPA is a chemical that’s classified as an “obesogen” for it’s ability to interfere with hormones that regulate metabolism, and it’s ability to increase the size and number of fat cells in the body, leading to weight gain, and obesity.

This is clearly a substance that we don’t want to be exposed to.

BPA-Free is BS

In the 1990’s when parents discovered that Bisphenol-A was leaching from baby bottles, they rightfully put up a stink about it. Not wanting to lose customers, many companies began to remove BPA from their products and slap “BPA-Free” labels on them.

And they’ve bit a hit ever since. Even if people don’t know what BPA is, they’ll assume that any product marketed as being “free” of this mysterious substance must be better somehow.

But BPA-Free doesn’t necessarily mean “safe” or “better” at all.  

BPA is one member of a family of chemicals, called “bisphenols”. When companies sought out replacement for BPA they simply turned to some of the other chemicals in the bisphenol family; specifically BPS and BPF. Structurally, these chemicals are nearly identical.

This is a problem because research into these replacements are finding that they are just as bad, if not worse in terms of their potential health effects and levels of endocrine disruption.

In a 2015 study on BPA and BPS in the journal Endocrinology stated that “BPA-free plastic products are not necessarily safer than products containing BPA.”

Another 2015 study, published in the journal Environmental Health Perspectives concluded that “based on the current literature, BPS and BPF are as hormonally active as BPA, and they have endocrine-disrupting effects.”

The 4 Things That Make Chemicals Leach from Plastic

There are four things that increase the rate at which chemical molecules, whether it’s BPA, BPS, or any other estrogenic compound, shed or migrate out into our foods or beverages:  heat, oil, acidity and abrasion.

We heat plastics every time we put the in the microwave, wash them with hot water, put them in the dishwasher, add hot food to them, or even leave them out in the sun.

Acids like citrus, tomatoes, and vinegars can increase leaching of potentially harmful chemicals. Oils and fats in our foods will also increase leaching, especially because BPA is a fat soluble chemical that is attracted to fat.

When we eat foods and drink beverages that have been stored in plastic, we are undoubtedly consuming BPA, BPS, or similar estrogenic compounds. Triple yuck.

Tips To Reduce Plastic At Home

Our goal is to minimize our exposure to plastics at home where they come in contact with food and drink.

Here are some quick tips to help you start reducing exposures to plastics in the kitchen:

  • Toss your plastic food storage containers (especially re-used yogurt tubs, etc.), and replace with glass items. Companies like Pyrex have been making glass containers for decades, and mason jars are an easy, inexpensive and convenient way to store leftovers and dry goods.
  • Instead of blending hot soups or lattes in your plastic VitaMix, Blendtec, or Magic Bullet (I’m looking at you, bulletproof drink makers!), use a stainless steel immersion blender, or stainless steel frother instead.
  • Always hand wash plastics you can’t swap out like your blender, and food processor bowl for example, in warm (not hot) soapy water, and never put them in the dishwasher.
  • Swap those plastic spatulas, spoons, tongs, and other utensils for stainless steel, wood, or bamboo.
  • Buy stainless steel or glass travel bottles instead of plastic ones, even BPA-Free plastics!

While there are a lot of exposures to potentially harmful chemicals in our lives that we can’t do much about (hello, smog!) ditching the plastics in our kitchens is an easy place to start!

What’s the first thing that you’re going to swap out? (Maybe those BPA-Free plastic bottles? Hint hint)

References and Sources:

  • Donohue, Kathleen M., et al. “Prenatal and postnatal bisphenol A exposure and asthma development among inner-city children.” Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology 131.3 (2013): 736-742.
  • Doherty, Leo F., et al. “In utero exposure to diethylstilbestrol (DES) or bisphenol-A (BPA) increases EZH2 expression in the mammary gland: an epigenetic mechanism linking endocrine disruptors to breast cancer.” Hormones and Cancer 1.3 (2010): 146-155.
  • Gao, Xiaoqian, and Hong-Sheng Wang. “Impact of bisphenol a on the cardiovascular system—Epidemiological and experimental evidence and molecular mechanisms.” International journal of environmental research and public health 11.8 (2014): 8399-8413.
  • Harley, Kim G., et al. “Prenatal and early childhood bisphenol A concentrations and behavior in school-aged children.” Environmental research 126 (2013): 43-50.
  • Ho, Shuk-Mei, et al. “Developmental exposure to estradiol and bisphenol A increases susceptibility to prostate carcinogenesis and epigenetically regulates phosphodiesterase type 4 variant 4.” Cancer research 66.11 (2006): 5624-5632.
  • Meeker, John D., et al. “Semen quality and sperm DNA damage in relation to urinary bisphenol A among men from an infertility clinic.” Reproductive toxicology 30.4 (2010): 532-539.
  • Qiu, Wenhui, et al. “Actions of bisphenol A and bisphenol S on the reproductive neuroendocrine system during early development in zebrafish.” Endocrinology 157.2 (2015): 636-647.
  • Rochester, Johanna R., and Ashley L. Bolden. “Bisphenol S and F: a systematic review and comparison of the hormonal activity of bisphenol A substitutes.” Environmental health perspectives 123.7 (2015): 643.
  • Roy, Jonathan R., Sanjoy Chakraborty, and Tandra R. Chakraborty. “Estrogen-like endocrine disrupting chemicals affecting puberty in humans–a review.” Medical science monitor 15.6 (2009): RA137-RA145.
  • Shankar, Anoop, and Srinivas Teppala. “Relationship between urinary bisphenol A levels and diabetes mellitus.” The Journal of Clinical Endocrinology & Metabolism 96.12 (2011): 3822-3826.
  • Sugiura-Ogasawara, Mayumi, et al. “Exposure to bisphenol A is associated with recurrent miscarriage.” Human reproduction 20.8 (2005): 2325-2329.
  • Vogel, Sarah A. “The politics of plastics: the making and unmaking of bisphenol a “safety”.” American journal of public health 99.S3 (2009): S559-S566.
  • Wang, Tiange, et al. “Urinary bisphenol A (BPA) concentration associates with obesity and insulin resistance.” The Journal of Clinical Endocrinology & Metabolism 97.2 (2011): E223-E227.
  • Yang, Mihi, et al. “Effects of bisphenol A on breast cancer and its risk factors.” Archives of toxicology 83.3 (2009): 281-285.

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