Toxic Plastics – Not Just BPA

by Catherine Haug, March 2, 2011 (photo from NPR article)

We’ve all heard that BPA, the plastic used in water bottles, is toxic because it mimics estrogen, and is classified as an endocrine disrupter. Because of this, most of us avoid food and water products in containers containing BPA: soda bottles, water bottles, canned foods, and traditional home canning lids.

In response, you’ve probably heard me say that all plastics are toxic, even if the media hasn’t reported it, or science hasn’t proved it yet. Furthermore, the production of plastic is not sustainable, whether it is made from petroleum or food crops.

Today, National Public Radio (NPR) released a story by Jon Hamilton: Study: Most Plastics Leach Hormone-Like Chemicals (1) that vindicates my belief for ‘most’ plastics.

This study only looked at hormone-like activity. There are also other ways in which plastics can be toxic; will the remaining ‘safe’ plastics someday be found to be unsafe too?

What about those you use in your home?

Plastics in the home

Here are some examples of commonly used plastic objects. How many of these do you use? How many of these are known to be toxic?

  • plastic grocery and produce bags
  • plastic supplement and prescription bottles/jars
  • plastic freezer bags
  • plastic storage containers and bags
  • clear food wrap (Saran, Handiwrap, etc.)
  • plastic microwave containers
  • plastic milk and juice jugs
  • plastic vinegar bottles
  • plastic water bottles
  • plastic sports bottles
  • plastic baby bottles
  • plastic or styro drinking cups/glasses
  • plastic canning jar lids (reuseable canning lids)
  • canned foods cans lined with plastic
  • canned foods (fruits, vegetables) in plastic jars
  • plastic shampoo & rinse bottles
  • plastic dental sealants
  • styro or styrene egg cartons
  • styro or styrene meat trays (from the meat dept.)
  • tupperware (and similar)
  • water pipes (PVC, PB, and PEX)
  • polyester fabrics, fleece
  • foam-based mattresses, pillows, cushions

Video: Toxic Plastics

Check out this informative 7-minute video on You Tube: Toxic Plastics, by Laura Vandenberg, a researcher and expert on Bisphenol A, about how chemicals are causing diseases.

Toxic Plastics: The Study

This new study looked for toxins with similar hormone-like activity to that of BPA and found that:

“Most plastic products, from sippy cups to food wraps, can release chemicals that act like the sex hormone estrogen, according to a study (2) in Environmental Health Perspectives.

The study found these chemicals even in products that didn’t contain BPA, a compound in certain plastics that’s been widely criticized because it mimics estrogen.”

The study did not identify specific harm that the toxins could cause, only that they have estrogen-like activity, a problem that has been associated with cancer and other problems like early maturation or infertility.

In the study, 450 plastic items designed to come in contact with food from stores including Walmart and Whole Foods were studied, including: baby bottles, deli packaging and flexible bags. These were chopped up and soaked in either saltwater or alcohol to see what came out.

“More than 70 percent of the products released chemicals that acted like estrogen. And that was before they exposed the stuff to real-world conditions: simulated sunlight, dishwashing and microwaving. … More than 95 percent of the products tested positive after undergoing this sort of stress.”

Some of the products labeled as BPA-free released higher levels of estrogen-mimicking toxins than those containing BPA!

It should also be noted that some of the products showed no estrogen-like activity, even after stressing the product. This leaves room for hope that more products can be made from those types of plastics. However, as mentioned above, plastic can be toxic in ways that have nothing to do with hormone activity. I’m still skeptical.

The study is not without its concerns:

“Some scientists wondered about the test’s reliability. Others noted that wine and many vegetables also can act like estrogen. And a few observed that [the lead researcher] has a financial interest in the testing lab and in a company involved in making plastic products that don’t release estrogenic chemicals.”

Beyond the study

You avoid meats and dairy products that contain hormones, so why would you buy a cut of meat wrapped with cling wrap that contains a hormone-like substance? Or a dairy product like yogurt, sour cream, cottage cheese in a plastic tub that contains an endocrine disrupter?

Even if the plastic is not in direct contact with food or drinking water, it can still have toxic consequences, as its toxins leach into soils, ground water, or oceans. Furthermore, there are other ways plastics can be toxic, besides mimicking hormone activity.

The sustainability factor

And then there’s the sustainability factor mentioned earlier. Plastics manufacture requires enormous amounts of energy or power; most of that power is produced by burning fossil fuels. Many of the plastics themselves are made from chemicals derived from petroleum. And those made from food stuffs (corn, soy, etc.), require farm chemicals made from petroleum to grow the crops.

My advice

Avoid the use of plastics. If you have plastics in your home, don’t simply toss them in the garbage. Recycle what you can, and take the others to a place that can deal with the toxic elements. Or find ways to use them that do not involve exposure to food or drinking water.

See The EssentiaList: Avoiding Toxins in Plastics (6) for more.

Known Toxic Plastics (by number code)

Less toxic plastics (as far as we now know) (3,7):

  • #1: PET or PETE (polyethylene terephthalate. For example: disposable soft drink, beer and water bottles which are now known to contain the toxin BPA but are generally considered safe for single-use (no refills). Also mouthwash bottles; peanut butter containers; salad dressing and vegetable oil containers. Additionally, #1 plastics may be recycled to make tote bags, furniture, carpet, paneling, and occasionally made into new plastic containers;
  • #2: HDPE (high density polyethylene; for example: milk jugs, liquid detergent and household cleaner bottles, shampoo bottles, bleach, detergent and household cleaner bottles, some trash and shopping bags, motor oil bottles, cereal box liners. Additionally, #2 plastics may be recycled to make detergent bottles, recycling containers, floor tile, drainage pipe, benches, picnic tables, fencing.

Many plastics have already been determined to be toxic, and are coded with the numbers 3, 4, 5, 6, & 7 as follows (3,7):

  • # 3 V (vinyl) or PVC (polyvinyl chloride): used in some clear, cling wraps (especially commercial brands), and some “soft” bottles. Also meat wrap, cooking oil bottles, plumbing pipes. these release toxic breakdown products (including pthalates) into food and drinks. PVC manufacturing can release highly toxic dioxins into the environment, and the materials can off-gas toxic plasticizers into your home. #3 plastics may be recycled as decking, paneling, mud flaps, roadway gutters, flooring, cables, speed bumps, mats
  • #4 LDPE (low density polyethylene): used in food storage bags and some “soft” bottles, including: Cling wrap, grocery bags, sandwich bags. #4 plastics can be recycled as trash can liners & cans,compost bins, shipping envelopes, paneling, lumber, floor tile.
  • #5 PP (polypropylene): used in rigid containers, including some baby bottles, some cups and bowls, cloudy plastic water bottles, and yogurt/sour cream/tub margarine cups/tubs. #5 plastics may be recycled as battery cables, brooms, brushes, auto battery cases, ice scrapers, landscape borders, bicycle racks, rakes, bins.
  • #6 PS (polystyrene). For example: Disposable coffee cups, clam-shell take-out containers. #6 plastics may be recycled as insulation, light switch plates, egg cartons, vents, rulers, foam packing, carry-out containers.
  • #7 other; includes PC (polycarbonate), PLA (polylactide), plastics made from renewable resources as well as newer plastics labeled “BPA-Free.” Examples: Baby bottles, some reusable water bottles, stain-resistant food-storage containers. Also those containing BPA, including baby bottles, 5-gallon water-cooler bottles and the epoxy linings of tin food cans. #7 plastics are not often recycled but may be as plastic lumber, custom-made products.

See also the You Tube video: The Seven Deadly Plastics


  1. NPR article:
  2. Environmental Health Perspectives:
  3. Educational CyberPlayGround (2009 date):
  4. Toxic Plastics (video):
  5. The Seven Deadly Plastics (video):
  6. The EssentiaList: Avoiding Toxins in Plastics (posted Nov 2009)
  7. Go-Green: A Guide to Recycling Codes on Plastic Containers

3 Responses to “Toxic Plastics – Not Just BPA”

  1. recyclers texas…

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  2. Vivian says:

    What about prescription bottles?

  3. Catherine says:

    Most prescriptions and supplements are tablets, capsules or softgels, which are then encased in plastic bottles, jars or other plastic containers. While these containers all have different chemical makeup, all are plastic – synthetic polymers. They are made in an industrial setting that uses cancerogenic chemicals like benzene as a solvent. There is always some solvent residue remaining in the plastic as it hardens. So even if the plastic itself is not toxic, the final product contains toxic solvents.

    I believe that all plastics – apart from the solvents – are toxic. Many, like BPA cause problems with the organs that make and/or respond to hormones, primarily estrogen, and are cancerogenic. So while I have not studied each and every plastic used to make prescription and supplement containers, I do believe they are toxic.

    The question remains, do the tablets/capsules/softgels contained in the plastic containers absorb the toxins from the plastic? I do believe this is definitely possible, and for this reason I always transfer my prescriptions to glass jars when I get them home.

    I hope this helps.