Our homes are full of plastic, and the kitchen is no exception. The
problem: Chemicals in plastic containers and other kitchenware may
leach into the foods
or drinks that they're holding. Scientific evidence suggests that some
of these chemicals may be harmful to people, especially infants and
The two best-studied offenders are bisphenol A (BPA)
and phthalates. BPA mimics estrogen and has been shown to disrupt
hormone and reproductive system function in animals. Research by the
National Toxicology Program found a moderate level of concern about its
"effects on the brain, behavior and prostate gland in fetuses, infants
and children." Phthalates have been shown to disrupt the endocrine
system and have led to malformations in the male reproductive system in
animals. Studies in humans have found associations between high
phthalate exposure and a variety of health concerns including low sperm quality, high waist circumference and insulin resistance.
are still debating whether phthalates and BPA actually cause these
health problems and, if so, how much exposure is necessary to trigger
them. While these issues are being figured out, some experts recommend
taking a preventive approach: "Minimize contact of food
with problematic plastics as a precautionary measure to protect your
health," suggests Rolf Halden, PhD, adjunct associate professor of
environmental health sciences at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of
Public Health. Here are six simple tips for reducing your exposure to
the potentially harmful chemicals in plastics.
1. Know the code.
Look on the bottom of your plastic to find the recycling symbol (a
number between 1 and 7 enclosed in a triangle of arrows). The code
indicates the type of plastic you are using and can give you important
clues about safety. "We generally say 1, 2, 4 and 5 are considered to
be the safest," says Sonya Lunder, senior analyst at the Environmental
Working Group. Try to avoid using plastics with 3 or 6, as these leach
chemicals that may be harmful. Number 7 is an "other" category that
includes BPA-containing plastics called polycarbonates. These plastics,
which you should avoid, will have the letters PC printed underneath the
2. Reconsider the microwave. Heat can increase the
rate at which chemicals like BPA leach from plastic. Containers labeled
"microwave safe" have been tested by the Food and Drug Administration
(FDA) and found to leach extremely small amounts, which the FDA has
determined to be safe. However, some experts advise people to keep
plastic out of the microwave altogether. "I don't microwave anything in
plastic," says Lunder. "It's really easy and fast to put my food into a
ceramic or glass container and heat it that way." And never put plastic
wrap on top of your food in the microwave, since it can melt. Use wax
paper or a paper towel instead.
3. Use it for its intended purpose.
Plastics that are designed for single use should only be used once.
"Plastic breaks down over time," Lunder explains. "Some aren't designed
to withstand heating and cooling." Most plastics with recycling code
number 1 are intended for single use, such as disposable water bottles.
And that takeout container from six months ago? Toss it. In general
they're fine for refrigerating leftovers, but aren't designed for heat
exposure or long-term use.
4. Wash by hand. Only
put plastics into the dishwasher if they have a dishwasher safe label.
If you want to be extra-cautious, wash all plastics by hand or use only
glass and ceramic plates and dishes. In the dishwasher, plastics are
exposed to detergents and heat, which may accelerate the leaching of
BPA from food containers.
5. Do not freeze. Only put
plastics in the freezer if they have a freezer-safe label. Freezer
temperatures can cause plastics to deteriorate, which increases the
leaching of chemicals into the food when you take containers out of the
freezer to thaw or reheat.
6. Don't panic. Cutting
down on exposure to potentially harmful chemicals in plastics can
benefit your health. But as Dr. Halden reminds us, "Many things in your
life pose a much higher risk than exposure to plastics, such as smoking, poor diet and even driving a car."