Articles: the problem with plastic

Due to my sensitivity to corn (which is in many things), it’s taken considerable effort to convert as much of what I own, wear and eat to relatively safe materials/ ingredients. I already knew corn is incorporated into many plastics and fabrics in addition to being the basis of most artificially manufactured chemicals these days, But lately, everyone seems to be concerned about something called, “phthalates.” After seeing it mentioned on nearly every social media portal, I couldn’t ignore it; I had to find out what all the fuss was about. However, conducting a search for a general definition proved to be more complex than I had anticipated.

Phthalates, a.k.a. plasticizers, are chemicals used to make plastic and vinyl more soft and flexible. They can also be adhesives or sealants. My first instinct was to feel smug: I have stainless steel mixing bowls and glass food saver dishes… but based on a cursory search of the space around me I was surrounded by synthetic material: my cell phone and computer frames (and mouse) along with their power cord casings, a ball point pen tube, my sunglasses and earrings… then a quick tour around the house revealed pliable plastic: the textured grip sleeve around my water bottle, the lids for the food saver dishes, my soap pump and shampoo bottle, the packaging of my ginger chews and frozen peas… Yikes– Plastic City!

It’s hard to not get anxious when you’re dying to know what you’ve all been taking for granted about plasticizers. It’s also difficult to not get overwhelmed by the maze of data, which is complicated enough to keep a curious information seeker wandering in circles for hours. As always, I’ve condensed here the results of my research

In the mid 1840s, the development of cellulose nitrate (a.k.a. Cellulose Nitrate, Collodion, Proyxlin) was significant as antiseptic. However, it smelled like ether, a noxious inhaled anesthetic/ diffusible stimulant that also easily vaporizes. Incidentally, despite known harmful effects, including reproductive harm, Collodion is still used as a moisture- resistant adhesive for sticking electrodes to a patient’s scalp for brain testing. It wasn’t largely replaced until the early 1930s by di-ethylhexyl phthalate which has been found to affect lab rats’ DNA by increasing liver fibrosis, which is most commonly caused by either alcoholism or severe injury.

The use of cellulose nitrate was followed by castor oil (pressed from castor beans), which has been used for centuries as an antimicrobial and antifungal ointment, hair conditioner, to relieve joint pain, reduce cholesterol, regulate blood sugar, as a laxative and to induce labor. Why it waned in popularity, we may never know (although I have my suspicions). Soon after, polyvinyl chloride became popular. Because it’s economical, versatile, durable, doesn’t corrode, or emit much by way of greenhouse gasses, it’s still considered the material of choice for many things, including pipes and cables.

Surprisingly, a peer-reviewed journal supported by the U.S. National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences published a paper back in the early 1970s stating that about 1 billion pounds of around 20 different phthalate compounds were being manufactured. Moreover, 350,000,000 pounds of other types of plasticizers, including adipates, azelates, phosphates, epoxides, polyesters, and trimellitates.

Even back then, scientists realized that water and blood can absorb phthalates: “If a plasticized poly(vinyl chloride) surface is placed in contact with other materials, the plasticizer may migrate or extract from the polymer matrix. When the environment (air, oil, water, blood, etc.) has a very high affinity for the plasticizer, the migration rate is dependent upon the ability of the plasticizer to diffuse through the resin matrix to the attracting media.”

Despite this, it wasn’t until as late as 2017 that the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission was able to issue a final rule prohibiting items, such as toys, made for children from containing more than 0.1 % of certain phthalates. It barely passed by a narrow margin.

In fact, based on a report by the Chronic Hazard Advisory Panel, several phthalate chemicals– including substitutes– are especially harmful to the male reproductive system and in some cases to neurodevelopmental outcomes. They also found that food, beverages, and drugs contributed far greater concentrations because they’re directly ingested so they’re easily absorbed by the bloodstream. Glass and metal food storage notwithstanding, we’re straight up eating and drinking this stuff!

As often as I blame the United States for the promotion of food additives and discouragement of natural ingredients and materials, many countries are facing opposition to this problem by their citizens. Other than that plasticizers are present in drinking water and added to food, I had difficulty getting a straight answer as to exactly where/ how they’re being added. Though there is promising research being conducted on microbes that can help to break down dihexyl phthalate in the environment, in the meantime manufacturers could find a loophole that will allow them to rename these chemicals, thereby making them harder for consumer to identify and thus avoid.

Phthalates (4 in particular) are commonly referred to as “endocrine disruptors” for their ability to cause reproductive problems. They mimic the body’s natural hormones enough to activate receptors to produce more or less but not enough to actually fulfill any of the functions of those hormones. Please recall from my overview of the Endocrine System, that a team of organs produce essential hormones, which regulate metabolism, growth and development, reproduction, sleep, mood, and other functions. Since pressure and/ or heat are the main causes of migration (i.e. dispersal into air/ water, absorption of skin, etc.), it’s worthwhile to– at the very absolute least– forgo heating food in plastic.

2008 Congressional Research Service Report: Phthalates in Plastics and Possible Human Health Effects (via WikiLeaks)

exposure to endocrine disrupting chemicals & male reproductive health

endocrine disruptors and Asthma- associated chemicals in consumer products

testing finds industrial chemical phthalates in cheese

endocrine disrupting phthalates & heavy metals in pre-packed coffee products

chemicals in coatings of coffee to-go cups

analysis of plasticizer contaminants in beverages and milk

determination of 6 phthalates in polypropylene consumer products

phthalates– ester plasticizers

thermoplastic elastomers

Crystalline vs. Amorphous Polymers

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