Plastic Invasion: Unmasking the Hidden Threat to Our Health

In today’s modern life, convenience often takes precedence over the hidden costs that come with it. One such hidden cost that has been silently infiltrating our daily lives is the omnipresence of plastic in our food and water. From packaging materials to storage containers, plastic has become an integral part of our food supply chain, raising serious concerns about its impact on our health. In this blog, we will delve into the pervasive issue of plastic content in our food and water and how to mitigate it to minimize health risks. 

The Plastic Onslaught

Plastic has become synonymous with modern living, and its widespread use is evident in our daily choices. From the water bottles we use to the food containers we rely on, plastic has become an unavoidable companion. This is because it does not naturally break down so easily, and is therefore helpful in packaging, durability, and product lifecycle. However, what many of us may not realize is that this convenience comes at a cost – a cost that could be detrimental to our health.

The Perils of Plastic in Food

Plastic is not merely an innocent bystander in our kitchens; it actively participates in our daily lives, leaching harmful chemicals into the very sustenance we rely on. When we store or heat food in plastic containers, there is a risk of unexpected ingredients creeping their way into the consumable. One such unexpected ingredient is a plasticizer.

Plasticizers are chemicals used to make plastic more flexible and durable. The most common of these are phthalates. From a chemistry standpoint, the flexible structure of phthalates make them effective at enhancing the flexibility of plastics. Unfortunately, phthalates and other chemicals in plastics, such as bisphenol A (BPA) can end up contaminating our gastrointestinal tract. BPA refers to an industrial chemical that is used to make plastics. Exposure to these chemicals can trigger a plethora of health problems including, but not limited to:

  • Hormonal disruptions
  • Developmental problems
  • Intestinal dysbiosis
  • Increased risk of certain cancers

Given the link to grave health problems, Consumer Reports (CR) has been actively investigating both BPAs and phthalates in food and food packaging over the last 25 years. In their most recent studies involving a thorough investigation of hundreds of food items, the CR team found phthalates present in high levels in almost every food item. Interestingly, the level of phthalates found was independent of the food type as well as the packaging in which they were carried. Ironically, organic foods were just as dangerous as processed, fast foods. In fact, in this study, researchers found the highest phthalate levels in a can of Annie’s Organic Cheesy Ravioli!

Unfortunately, there exists a multitude of different ways by which phthalates and BPAs can end up entering our food. Even if one tries to limit exposure to these chemicals by focusing on packaging, phthalates in particular can end up entering our food through the plastic found in the tubing, conveyor belts, and gloves used during food processing. Contaminated water and soil can directly introduce phthalates into meat and produce as well.

The ease with which they enter our food along with their widespread presence make them a constant source of exposure to humans. Even though the human body can eliminate BPAs and phthalates quite quickly, perpetual exposure makes them enter our blood and tissue at a rate that exceeds the rate of their elimination. This means that these chemicals will gradually accumulate in our bodies, increasing the likelihood of health risks.

What’s distressing is that the gradual cumulative effect makes it hard to attribute a bad health outcome like a heart attack or breast cancer to those chemicals. Since the chemicals do not serve as the immediate culprit, this makes it hard for regulators to set limits on PFAs and phthalates that are considered safe for any food.

However, it is important to set regulations and proactively evaluate current regulation limits. The importance of this is epitomized by the findings of another study conducted by CR. In this study, researchers analyzed 85 foods (two or three samples each) for phthalates and BPAs. Their findings revealed that 79% percent of the tested samples comtained BPAs. When it came to phthalates, all but one food sample contained the same. What was particularly noteworthy was the presence of a phthalate known as Di (2-ethylhexyl) phthalate (DEHP). Previously, DEHP has been linked to key health problems such as insulin resistance, high blood pressure, early menopause, and reproductive problems. In more than half of the products tested, DEHP levels were found to surpass the amount previous research has linked to health problems.

In addition to being cautious of chemicals like DEHP and phthalates, we also need to be aware of microplastics. Microplastics is a term that refers to extremely small pieces of plastic which measure less than five millimeters. Some of these form when larger plastics break down.

While often invisible to the naked eye, microplastics can infiltrate almost everything we eat and drink. Seafood, for instance, has been found to contain microplastics, highlighting the alarming extent of plastic pollution and its impact on our food chain. Unfortunately, the effects of these microplastics on health can be quite detrimental.

The Water We Drink

While we may be mindful of the plastic containers we use for food, we often overlook the plastic invasion in our water supply. Bottled water, a seemingly harmless choice, has been found to contain microplastics. A study by the World Health Organization (WHO) revealed that over 90% of the world’s most popular bottled water brands contained microplastic particles. In another study conducted by Columbia Climate School, researchers identified a staggering 240,000 detectable plastic fragments in a liter of bottled water. This was 10-100 times greater than previous estimates. This could be because researchers in this study particularly took account of nanoplastics. Nanoplastics refer to plastics that emerge when microplastics break down. Hence, these appear even smaller than microplastics. Since they are so small, nanoplastics can pass through the intestines and lungs directly into the bloodstream. From there, they can travel to organs including the heart and brain. They can even penetrate individual cells and cross the placenta entering the bodies of unborn babies. This makes their widespread presence in bottled water particularly disturbing, prompting researchers to find ways to nullify their presence.

And what’s scary is that even tap water is not exempt from plastic contamination. Plastic fibers have been detected in tap water samples from around the globe, emphasizing the pervasive nature of this issue. The long-term implications of consuming water laced with microplastics and nanoplastics are still not fully understood, but concerns about potential health risks continue to grow. Therefore, it is important to install a high-quality water filter system that can scan out micro- and nanoplastics.

Health Implications of Plastic Exposure

As the evidence of plastic content in our food and water mounts, so do the concerns about its impact on our health. Researchers are uncovering links between plastic exposure and a range of health issues, including obesity, diabetes, reproductive problems, and even neurodevelopmental disorders. Certain plastic compounds, such as BPA, have raised loud alarm bells, as they can interfere with hormonal balance and contribute to various health problems.

Children, in particular, may be more vulnerable to the adverse effects of plastic exposure. This is because both infants and children eat more food per pound of body weight than adults. Moreover, their organs and metabolic systems are still developing, so plastic-precipitated physiological changes can persist for a long time. Given the vulnerability of children to plastics, a major group of pediatricians, from the American Academy of Pediatricians, released a statement back in 2018 expressing their concerns about the harmful effects of plastics and related chemicals in food on children’s growth and development. Early-life exposure to plastic compounds has been associated with developmental issues, affecting everything from cognitive function to the immune system. With plastic omnipresent in the daily lives of children, the potential long-term consequences of this exposure cannot be ignored.

What Can We Do?

We as consumers can play a crucial role in mitigating the plastic accumulation of our planet. 

  1. Opting for glass or stainless steel containers over plastic. Here’s glass with silicone sleeve, or my favorite stainless.
  2. Filter tap water with filtration systems: Here’s a counter top pitcher highly rated by ConsumerLab for microplastic elimination:
  • Reduce packaging (bring your own bag to grocery stores) and be mindful of the products you purchase. For example, bulk flour, nuts and spices at your local market will save you packaging and money.
  • Support businesses that prioritize eco-friendly practices.

By understanding the implications of plastic in our food and water, we can take collective action to protect our health, our environment, and the well-being of generations to come.

“A plastic pollution-free world is not a choice but a commitment to life – a commitment to the next generation.”

Amit Ray, Indian author and spiritual master

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