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Plastic: a toxic cocktail

Article by:  Melissa Petersen AdvDipHSc(Nat), GradCertEvBdPrac 

We live in a world full of plastics and toxins. Originally marketed as the ‘the material of a thousand uses’ and seen as an inexpensive, safe and sanitary substance, plastic is now a global concern to the environment and our health. Its strong, flexible and transparent (or coloured) properties are also its downfall, with numerous chemicals required in manufacturing to provide these beneficial attributes.1,2

It is estimated that by 2050, 2 billion tonnes of chemical additives will have been used in plastic.1

Many of the chemicals in plastic are toxic and leach into the environment during manufacturing, use, and in disposal.1

Plastic – BPA and phthalates

Two chemicals used in the manufacturing of plastic that are of global concern are BPA and phthalates. BPA is an oestrogenic environmental toxin with potentially serious effects on human health. It is classified as the third most important pollutant and an endocrine disrupter. Phthalates are multifunctional chemical toxins used to increase flexibility, transparency, durability and longevity of plastics.4-6

Phthalates and BPA are not classed as persistent organic pollutants (POPs) as they are rapidly metabolised and excreted through the digestive and urinary tracts, with BPA having a half-life of 4 to 5 hours. However, their everyday use means there is constant exposure, and despite the short half-life, research shows BPA and phthalates can bioaccumulate in adipose tissue after reaching exposure threshold. They are then slowly released into the bloodstream.3-4,9

‘Given the endurance of BPA in the environment and its presence in human serum worldwide, a life-long effect of BPA may be assumed.’ 3

Both BPA and phthalates cause oxidative stress and inflammation, affect liver health and function, reduce antioxidant activity and work by affecting gene transcription. They can have numerous endocrine, reproductive, hepatic, immune, neurological and developmental effects.3-4,9

Even alternatives to these chemicals are problematic. ‘Phthalate free’ or ‘BPA free’ products may contain other concerning replacements. Bisphenol S (BPS) and bisphenol F (BPF) are two BPA substitutes used widely in consumer products, which have been detected in human urine samples.

Research shows these chemicals also have endocrine disrupting effects and are as hormonally active as BPA.6,8

Solvents – TCE, toluene and benzene

Other toxins found widely in consumer and industrial products are solvents, including trichloroethylene (TCE), toluene an benzene. These chemicals are hazardous to human health causing various mild to severe symptoms upon exposure. TCE is classed as a probable carcinogen, toluene is a central nervous system oxidative and myelin sheath toxin, and benzene is a potential carcinogen and haemotoxic agent with no safe level of exposure.10-14

TCE exposure is through inhalation, drinking water and contact with skin. Exposure of both benzene and toluene is mainly from inhalation, but exposure can also occur through food and water contamination and skin contact.10-12

With all these chemicals ubiquitous in the environment, specific nutrients and herbs can be beneficial in helping clear and protect the body from their potential health effects.

Always seek the guidance and support of a qualified Naturopath and never self-prescribe [or take the advice of a friend] when it comes to supplements.


References available on request.