Plastic: What's in it, and is it safe?
July 12, 2007
By Romana King, CBC News
We bathe with it, clean with it, play with it and eat off it. Plastic. It's a petroleum engineer's dream and a product manufacturer's best friend. It allows for lighter, tougher and better packaging and provides cheaper options for gifts and merchandise.
Yet, the very substance that revolutionized consumer goods may actually be harming us.
Plastic is raising concerns among researchers that in some forms it may be toxic and dangerous — not only to the environment but also to human health. While it's everywhere in modern society, there are options for those who want to minimize the use of plastic.
While plastics haven't been definitively linked with health problems, studies show the prevalence in our bodies of chemicals used in plastic and the correlation between these chemicals and health issues.
One study, released in June by Environmental Defence, a national advocacy group, tested a sample of Canadian children and parents for the preponderance of 68 chemicals, all found in consumer products. The findings showed that on average the participants' bodies contained levels of 70 per cent of these contaminants. What's worse is that children had higher levels than their parents.
According to Kathleen Cooper, senior researcher at the Toronto-based Environmental Law Association, plastic itself is not the problem. It's some of the material used to make plastic that is harmful.
"Manufacturers all over the world use chemicals that soften, stabilize and create malleable plastic products. These chemicals contain phthalates and other dioxins that are known endocrine disruptors," Cooper said.
"The use of these chemicals is totally unregulated internationally," Cooper said. "So even if there is a voluntary agreement in domestic markets, the cheap stuff from developing countries or export processing zones makes it on to our shelves and into our homes."
Among the more worrying materials for contaminate leaching is PVC (polyvinyl chloride), commonly referred to as vinyl. The chemicals leached during the PVC lifecycle include mercury, dioxins and phthalates. PVC is used in numerous consumer products, including adhesives, detergents, lubricating oils, solvents, automotive plastics, plastic clothing, personal-care products (such as soap, shampoo, deodorants, fragrances, hair spray, nail polish), as well as toys and building materials.
Organizations including the U.S.-based National Toxicology Program, the Environmental Protection Agency, the International Agency for Research on Cancer and the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health agree that vinyl chloride monomer (VCM) is one of 52 chemicals/compounds designated as a confirmed human carcinogen. As a result, advocacy groups, including Greenpeace, Children's Health and Environmental Coalition (CHEC) and the U.S.-based Center for Health, Environment and Justice (CHEJ) have called for a restriction or prohibition of PVC in consumer products including toys, building materials and packaging.
Not everyone agrees with the position of these groups. In an e-mailed statement, Marion Axmith, director general of the Vinyl Council of Canada (a council of the Canadian Plastics Industry Association), told CBC News.ca: "PVC/vinyl products have been used safely for over 40 years. Advocacy group claims are not new and are not supported by the latest research, including safety assessments conducted by the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission and the European Union."
While research surrounding materials such as vinyl chloride monomer continues, advocacy groups have called on consumers to pay attention to what's in the products they buy, and to let manufacturers and retailers know if they want more choice in terms of the composition of the products available to them.
"People need to get upset about this. It has to be consumers voting with their wallets; consumers expressing concern," Cooper said.
While the number of products made of PVC can seem overwhelming, there are alternatives available to those who want them as the number of natural and non-chlorinated plastic substitutes in the market grows.
Labels and packaging
At present, labelling laws do not require manufacturers to list all toxins used in the creation of their product. However, there are easy ways to recognize a PVC-based toy or product: Look for the three-arrow "recycling" symbol with the number 3 or the initials PVC, which indicates polyvinyl chloride. If neither symbol is present, then call the manufacturer's question/comment line (usually a toll-free 800 number) listed on the package or label.
Another clue to look for is the use of malleable or soft plastic. This can be found in toys, but also on clothing, bed linens and packaging. Read the labels and when in doubt, opt for a different product.
For those concerned about what's in toys but unable to do extensive research on what they contain due to the holiday-buying rush, pick toy manufacturers who opt for non-PVC-based plastic. These brands include: Chicco, Evenflo, Gerber, International Playthings (including Primetime and Early Start), Lego, Sassy, Thomas and Tiny Love. According to Greenpeace's Toy Report Card, Discovery Toys and Manhattan Baby also provide an extensive selection of PVC-free toys, but some products do still contain it.
Another alternative is to purchase toys made from organic cotton or certified sustainable wood. Companies that specialize in these fibres include: Brio, Lamaze, Melissa & Doug, Thomas and Woodkits, to name a few.
Alternatives to PVC
While avoiding all plastics is advised by some, it is not always practical. Thankfully, not all plastics are created equal.
Look for other plastics that are considered less harmful, such as #1 PETE, #2 HDPE, #4 LDPE and #5 PP. While these plastics also leach chemicals, studies suggest that their level of toxicity is not as great as with PVC products.
Here are some suggestions for ways to avoid plastic this holiday season:
- Choose refillable containers. Glass, for example, can be re-used for food storage.
- Choose packaging that's made from truly recyclable materials: paper, glass, metal cans. (Purchasing recycled paper products completes the recycling loop, too.)
- Buy in bulk, whenever possible. It's the least-packaged option.
- For wrapped foods, choose butcher paper, waxed paper or cellulose bags.
- Bring cloth bags when you go shopping, rather than using PVC-based plastic bags.
- Choose things made from #1 (PETE) or #2 (HDPE) whenever plastic cannot be avoided. These are the most commonly recycled plastics.
- Avoid plastics that aren't readily recyclable: #3 (PVC), #4 (LDPE), #5 (PP), #6 (PS), #7 (often polycarbonate).
- Avoid single-use, disposable packaging.
- Bring your own non-plastic container to salad bars, yogurt shops, etc. — any place you'd otherwise be served food in plastic containers.
- Avoid plastic cutlery and dinnerware. Use stainless steel utensils and look for recycled paper products.
- Microwave foods and drinks in oven-proof glass or ceramic dishes with lids. Never let plastic wrap touch food while in the microwave, as this is one way chemicals are suspected of leaching from plastic into food.
- When purchasing cling-wrapped foods from the supermarket or deli, slice off a thin layer where the food came into contact with the plastic and store the rest in a glass or ceramic container, or in non-PVC cling wrap.
- Main page
- Airline connections
- Airport security
- 10 tips for holiday globetrotters
- Alternative gifts
- Alternative winter getaways
- Alternative presentation ideas for holiday gifts
- Apartment hunting
- Inside ARGs
- Athletic shoes
- Auto arbitration
- Back-to-school shopping trends
- Barbecue tips for food
- Bargain flights
- Bottled water
- Carbon footprints
- Minimizing a trip's CO2 impact on the planet
- Cellphone breakout
- The pros and cons of unlocked handsets
- Cellphone chic
- Phones have become a fashion accessory
- Christmas tree safety
- Clear-out sales: How not to be taken
- Compulsive shopping
- Costly toys
- Counterfeit goods
- Cross-border shopping
- Cruise crime
- Cruise vacations
- Cultural diversity
- Dollar parity
- Donated Clothing (Part I)
- Donated Clothing (Part II)
- Dropping prices?
- Dryer safety
- Eco-friendly dying
- Environmentally friendly entertaining
- Father's Day
- Food: Canada's cuisine comes of age
- Funny fare
- Hunting down Canada's national food treasures
- Foie gras frenzy divides Chicago
- Fur: sustainable resource or fashion faux pas?
- Giving to charities
- Going solo
- Travel tips for women backpacking it alone
- Green cleaning
- Green gadgetry
- Green packaging
- Hearing Aids
- Helium: A disappearing gas?
- Hidden fees
- Holiday feasts
- Holiday shipping
- Holiday planning
- Home alone
- Hot destinations
- Year of the Asian vacation?
- Hot destinations
- Warm getaways that are off the beaten path
- Inflatable pools
- Identity theft
- Kids toys
- Learning toys
- Legal fees
- Long-distance flying
- Making connections
- Tips for getting online when travelling
- Making connections
- Phones to go
- Mothers' Day
- Pet food safety
- Pet food, alternatives
- Phone deregulation
- Plastic: What's in it, and is it safe?
- Recalls and advisories
- Redeeming rebates
- Refunds: How to get your money back
- Repelling mosquitoes
- Santa's knee: 10 tips on preparing kids to see the man in red
- Scooter sales rev up
- School bus safety
- School shopping
- Second-hand sales
- Smoke detectors
- Student survival guide
- Tips: Is your waiter playing mind games?
- Toy stereotypes
- Travel: Strategies to stretch your cash in Europe
- Water safety for kids
- Winterizing your car
- Year in review: Consumer Life 2006
- Your computer
- Center for Environment, Health and Justice dedicated website entitled PVC: The Poison Plastic
- Information on toxicity and how it affects the health of Canadian children
- Information on what plastic recycling symbols mean
(Note: CBC does not endorse and is not responsible for the content of external sites - links will open in new window)