We’ll have to coin a word for our newly found fear of plastics

Editorial & Opinion, Wednesday, May 28, 2008

The Oxford English Dictionary has no word for fear of plastics. In light of recent headlines, I’d like to coin plastiphobia or plastipanic, because I know I’m not alone in questioning the predominance and safety of some plastics in our world.

It may have started with all of the product recalls for plastic toys covered in lead paint, then was reinforced by a series of forwarded e-mails saying not to cook in plastics or freeze water bottles due to cancer-causing dioxins (not true – read on).

I’ve definitely become more conscious of the amount of plastic packaging that is not recyclable and ending up in our landfills. Perhaps the last plastic drinking straw that broke my back was April 18, 2008, when bisphenol A (BPA) was labeled a chemical of concern by the government, leaving me staring at my Nalgene bottle skeptically.

Before plastics are exiled from my kitchen, I did further research.

The dioxin e-mail was a hoax. Microwaving food in plastic containers, such as Tupperware, can release chemicals, especially into fattier foods, but not cancer-causing dioxins. Also, you can freeze water bottles without risk. With colder temperatures chemicals are less likely to migrate.

Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health’s website, the supposed source of the dioxin information, reminds us to follow manufacturer’s recommendations: “When cooking with plastics, only use those plastic containers, wraps, bags and utensils for their intended purposes.” For plastic wrap, that means don’t let it touch your food – heat foods in large bowls. For my children’s hard plastic Disney dinner plates, it turns out they are not microwave safe (oops – sorry kids).

This hot/cold information is the key to how I can be at peace with my Nalgene refillable water bottle that sports a PC beside the 7 in the recycling symbol, which means it contains bisphenol A (BPA) an industrial chemical used in polycarbonate plastic.

On April 18, Canada became the first country in the world to take measures against BPA. Minister Clement said: “It is our responsibility to ensure families, Canadians and our environment are not exposed to a potentially harmful chemical.” His statements triggered a national recall by a number of manufacturers and retailers, including Mountain Equipment Co-op, Wal-Mart, and Zellers.

The announcement left me with a lot of questions, and I turned to the government’s new website: http://www.HealthyCanadians.ca.

I learned that I can refill my bottle with cold or room temperature liquids, just not hot liquids. The website states the worry is around newborns and infants under 18 months “through the use of polycarbonate baby bottles when they are exposed to high temperatures and the migration of bisphenol A from cans into infant formula.”

It seems our babies, if not breast-fed, may be exposed twice to BPA, from the epoxy resins on the inside of formula cans, and in polycarbonate baby bottles.

Health Canada is worried about possible neurological effects of BPA, based on rodent studies. This is not new. My office neighbour Prof. Sara Mainville, reviewed research on BPA when she was articling in 2004, and sent me information on research from the Yale School of Medicine, and Jordan University of Science and Technology concluding that BPA may cause fertility defects.

Media stories in the U.S. linked BPA to cancer and infertility, so I asked Paul Duchesne, a Health Canada Senior Media Relations Advisor, who stated : “The need for additional data on the effects of bisphenol A exposure during early life stages on cancer was identified in the Health Canada screening assessment. The studies on reproductive effects (infertility, puberty) in experimental animals have conflicting results.”

I appreciate that our government is protecting our babies, as baby bottles with BPA may be banned, but who will protect the fish? The Healthy Canadians website says that “Environment Canada scientists also found that at low levels, bisphenol A can harm fish and aquatic organisms over time. Studies indicate that it can currently be found in wastewater and sludge treatment plants.” Nowhere does the site tell me about safe disposal of BPA products. The lightweight, highly shatter-resistant, plastic, according to the minister’s remarks is considered “ideal for use in sports and safety equipment such as hockey helmets, CDs and DVDs, electronic equipment, and in automobiles.” If BPA is a problem for aquatic ecosystems, then we need to dispose of these products safely, along with our batteries, paint, and old cleaning products. Perhaps the fish need to start a lobby group?

We should also review all products with BPA, because dental products are listed as one source of BPA in international studies. By drinking coffee and eating hot soup could we be releasing BPA from resin-based dental composites and sealants right into our bodies? This is a worry for more than babies especially as the Yale study connects BPA to “learning impairment and, in old age, the onset of neurodegenerative disorders such as Alzheimer’s disease.”

The only conclusion I can make from my research is that I am not alone in my worry. For the period of April 18 to May 9, 2008, the website for BPA received just over 50,000 hits to the main page in English and French and the 1-800-O-Canada line and Health Canada dedicated toll-free service received over 1,000 calls regarding bisphenol A.

I think I’ll go chew a piece of gum and think this over. Wait . . . do you think there is vinyl acetate in this brand of gum?

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