Two years ago I had to discard my cured olives after I had noticed that the vinegar had dissolved the lining of the plastic jar. The idea of consuming liquefied plastic just was not very appealing. Ever since I wanted to write an article about plastic and health risks and frankly the research about it sounds like coming from Frankenstein’s laboratory.
Could it be that it isn’t the modern food we eat that makes us ill, but the packaging? Well, may be both.
The final verdict about dangers of plastic is still pending because much of the research has been done on animals, which is a lot easier, as you can control their environment during their limited life span. Results do not necessarily apply to humans as chemical pathways could have altered randomly in species development, but for example the mouse shares 99% of its genes with us. We are unique because of our intelligence, but in terms of physical and functional development of our body and those parts of our brain that are not used for reasoning, we are still very much a simple mammals. Even governments have taken those concerns seriously and banned a couple of substances in plastic toys for children under the age of three. The literature is often controversial, but the plastic industry is a lobby to reckon with.
Many agents in our body are only needed in tiny amounts to produce major changes; e.g. we measure the amount of sex hormones in nanograms, which is a thousand millionths of a gram (a billionth part, for the US). And with plastic (the same as soya, which I wrote about a year ago on) we talk about such tiny amounts.
Different plastics leach different chemicals into the air or food or liquid and as organic molecules they can accumulate in the body and be transferred from mother to child or work their way up the food chain. Biphenol A was recently in the news again, after it was found in baby bottles. It has been linked to chromosome damage in the ovaries and decreased sperm count. (In fact the average testosterone levels have dropped significantly since the 1940s.) It is linked to early onset of puberty, concerns about brain development and memory and to behavioural changes. Exposure around the time of birth may predispose to obesity, breast and prostate cancer.
Phthalates mimic oestrogen and it is thought that male foetuses and infants are most at risk. It has adverse effects on male sex organs and kidneys and might predispose to male obesity and insulin resistance. According to the assessment of the European commission, it might cause leukaemia and testicular cancer. It has been linked to asthma and allergy in children and to ADHD. Liver problems are rodent specific and do not apply to primates, one example of the difficulty of applying animal research to humans.
Styrenes mimic oestrogen. They are classified as being carcinogenic, in particular leukaemia and lymphoma has been mentioned. Chronic exposure can cause headache, fatigue and depression. Their influence on reproduction and child development are hotly disputed.
The conclusion seems to be, that because plastic is everywhere it may not necessarily be healthy, apart from being an environmental problem.
Finally, and changing the subject, the latest medical madness is the idea of body scanning at airports. The supporters stress the low radiation risk. Radiation is the only hazardous material that exists to my knowledge where no safe dose limit exists for the general population. It is generally accepted that even smallest increases in radiation exposure increase the risk of cancer development.