November 7, 2018

What parents need to know about phthalates and BPA

Whether grocery shopping or buying household goods, you've likely seen items — from soup cans to plastic containers — labeled BPA-free. But what is it and why does it matter?

Bisphenol-A (or BPA) is a chemical that is used in the creation of certain types of plastics (polycarbonates), as well as in the coating on the inside of metal food and beverage containers to prevent corrosion and leakage. Other chemicals commonly used in plastics are phthalates, which are added to plastic to make them flexible and durable — in the medical world think of IV bags, tubing and even some enteric-coated medicines (medicines that have a special coating to keep them from being absorbed by the body until they reach the intestines).

Commercially, many common products contain phthalates including plastic cling wrap, plastic food containers, toys, even nail polish, baby shampoos, body products and cleaning products like detergents. The phthalates essentially help the various chemicals combine — and stay combined — and not harden. We are exposed to these chemicals by ingesting them, inhaling them or absorbing them through our skin. These chemicals float around in the dust in our homes, the air pollution we breath and the food we eat. And that's where some of the problems arise.

Many of these chemicals have been studied over time and thought to be safe individually at low levels of exposure in humans. But our exposure to these chemicals has increased significantly over time, beyond the low levels of exposure that has been studied. The concern is that there are a number of problems that phthalates may cause. They may disrupt some hormone systems in the body and may be cancer-causing. They are possible links to early puberty and problems with the development of genital organs in fetuses. These chemicals may also be related to an increased risk of eczema, chronic nasal congestion and asthma.

Children are more likely to be more highly exposed than adults for a number of reasons:

  • They consume more food per pound of body weight than adults

  • They often eat more foods that have been wrapped, stored or packaged in plastics than adults

  • Young children put things in their mouths to explore, including and especially their toys

  • They may be exposed across the placenta and through breast milk

  • Babies and very young children get rid of toxins in their bodies less well than adults do

Newer regulations limit the use of some phthalates in toys that are meant to be mouthed, pacifiers and bottles, and infant formula. The FDA recently banned the use of bisphenols in the creation of infant bottles and sippy cups. More research needs to be done about the safety of the chemicals and our exposure to them, which is why the language we use is often "may cause" and "possible links."

While we don't have answers just yet, it does seem prudent to try to reduce your family's exposure to these chemicals when possible. As an example, heating or cooking with plastics that contain phthalates or bisphenols seems to encourage the release of these chemicals in some circumstances. To help, consider the following recommendations:

  • Do not microwave food or beverages in plastic containers

  • Do not microwave or otherwise heat plastic cling wrap

  • Do not place plastics in the dishwasher

  • Use safer alternatives when possible, like glass containers or polyethylene plastics (recycling numbers 2, 4, 5 are generally considered safe, 1 should be used in moderation and 3, 6, 7 should be avoided.)

  • Aim for fresh or frozen fruits and vegetables instead of canned

  • Look for products that are labeled "phthalate-free" and "BPA-free"