With the recent coverage around toxins like PFAS found in our bottled water, it makes sense that people want to understand what these and other commonly exposed toxins are, how are people being exposed, and how we can prevent future exposure so that we can avoid the illnesses that result from continued exposure to these toxins.
In the United States, nearly one-in-four households risk having unsafe tap water to drink or their local municipal water systems have not been properly monitored for contaminants by federal law. Just one example is the water crisis happened in Flint, Michigan. The National Resource Defense Counsel (NRDC) recently reported that 27 million people, or one in every 12 Americans, are unknowingly exposed to drinking water systems with health-based violations.
What many didn’t know until recently is that they have been exposed to toxins in their bottled water as well. Millions of dollars are spent by consumers each year on bottled water with the expectation that it is purified and free of harmful contaminants yet the recent press has revealed that in fact, many have been contaminated by their bottled drinking water. Toxic levels of PFAS were recently discovered in bottled water in Connecticut. PFAS is a chemical used in the manufacturing of many products including plastics.
What is less known about are all the other toxins found in our water and that many of these toxins are coming from our plastics even if its BPA free. There are seven plastic packaging identification codes that are shown on all plastic containers denoted by a triangle surrounding a number between 1 and 7, usually found at the bottom of the water bottles or plastic containers. While many use these to identify what plastics can be recycled, it reveals much about the toxicity of the plastic you might be using.
Water bottles and other plastic containers with a 1 inside the triangle tells us that these containers are made from PET/PETE (polyethylene terephthalate). PET plastics contain estrogenic compounds that leach into the food, water, or products stored within these containers or bottles. To make matters worse, PET plastic also leach toxic antimony trioxide into the water which is a known carcinogen (cancer-causing agent) and can contribute to skin problems, pregnancy issues.
Water bottles and plastic containers with a 2 inside the triangle tells us these containers are made from High-Density Polyethylene or HDPE. While some may consider this a safer alternative it’s important to understand how this plastic is affecting humans and our environment. This type of plastic accounts for 62 percent of all plastics produced globally and the most common contaminant found in our oceans. What makes this plastic so dangerous is that it absorbs toxic chemicals for up to 44 months making it a huge toxic substance which our marine life accidentally ingest. The inability for marine life to digest the plastics combined with the toxins that are absorbed by the marine life when these plastics get stuck in their bodies is a double whammy for our marine ecosystem. And there’s no denying now that our seafood is contaminated with these additional toxins. HDPE plastics are typically found in detergent bottles, plastic grocery bags, toys, and mild containers.
Plastic containers and bottles with the number 3 inside the triangle are made from PVC (Polyvinyl chloride) which is the most toxic and most harmful form of plastic. PVC contains toxic substances such as lead, phthalates, mercury, dioxins, and cadmium which can cause cancer, ADHD and other neurological diseases, asthma, allergies, can cancer. When burned it contains one of the most toxic chemicals known. These are found in carpet backing, construction materials, loose-leaf binders, flooring, shower curtains, oil jars, shampoo and squeeze bottles, mouthwash bottles, toys, cling wrap, and packaging. There’s no safe way to manufacture, use or dispose of PVC products. Congress has banned the use of PVC in toys and many states are concerned over PVC exposure because of it’s harmful neurological effects on children and developing fetuses.
Plastics labeled with a number 4 inside the triangle are generally considered safe. These types of plastics contain low-density polyethylene or LDPE. This type of plastic is commonly used in produce bags, squeezable bottles, bread bags, coated paper milk cartons, and hot/cold beverage cups. While LDPE does not contain BPA, it can leach estrogenic chemicals, much like HDPE especially when exposed to sunlight. While this is the least of the toxic plastics it’s important to note that a big problem with LDPE is mainly an environmental one because It is not recyclable via curbside and other recycling programs.
Any plastic with the number 5 in the triangle is also considered a safer alternative. This plastic is made from Polypropylene (PP) and is found in food containers like yogurt, ketchup, and syrups. It’s also found in bottle caps, staws, baby bottles, diapers, sanitary pads, the wraps for butter and is found in many appliances and in cars. While this type of plastic is relatively safe it can leach plastic additives that have been linked with asthma.
Plastics labeled with a number 6 are considered toxic. These are made from polystyrene commonly found in egg cartons, food packaging, containers, disposable cutlery, CD’s, medicine bottles, and test tubes. This chemical is a known carcinogen that is also found in second-hand cigarette smoke and significantly impacts the nervous system and brain and causes hormone disruption.
The last of the plastic codes to look out for is that with a number 7 in the triangle. This toxic plastic is referred to as ‘O’ which refers to all other plastics, ie, “everything else” and is made up of different types of plastics including bioplastics, PFAS ( polyfluoroalkyl substances) and also includes Polycarbonate and the highly toxic BPA plastics. Use of plastic in category 7 is a “Use at Your Own Risk” since you really have no idea what’s in it. Plastics in this category can leach BPA which as we mentioned above is a hormone disruptor that not only affects women with fertility problems and breast cancer, it affects children causing abnormal puberty onset, and men are affected with decreased sperm production and prostate cancer. It is also known to cause diabetes, obesity, resistance to chemotherapy, and other metabolic disorders.
So now that you have the real scoop on plastics what do you do now? First, change your habits so that you stop doing harm to yourself, your children, and your environment. You can take steps by understanding which plastics to use when you do use them, reuse when possible, and start switching out to glass, bamboo, metal or other reusable and environmentally friendly materials.
To summarize, Plastics #1, #3, #6 and #7 shouldn’t be used unless absolutely necessary and should not be used around food, drinks, household products, or other products you are in contact with. Plastics in categories #2, #4 and #5 are generally considered safe. Be wary of putting them in the microwave, or exposing them to heat or sunlight even if they are labeled “microwave-safe”.