Are There Any Safe Plastics?

Which are the safe plastics to eat or drink from? Or to give our children? If you Google “which plastics are safe?”, you’ll find lots of articles on the Internet explaining the resin identification codes (the little numbers 1 – 7 in the “chasing arrows” triangle on the bottom of a plastic item) and which ones are bad and which are good.

While there are some variations in thinking, most people who write those articles agree that the worst plastics are #3 (polyvinyl chloride, aka PVC), #6 (polystyrene), and #7 (polycarbonate). PVC contains hormone-disrupting phthalates and is often stabilized with lead or other heavy metals like cadmium. Polystyrene (used to make Styrofoam and also red Solo cups – yes they are both the same kind of plastic) contains styrene, a known carcinogen. And polycarbonate contains hormone-disrupting Bisphenol-A (BPA).

Then, most articles about plastic toxicity go on to reassure readers that the rest of them–#2 (high density polyethylene), #4 (low density polyethylene), #5 polypropylene, and to a lesser extent #1 (polyethylene terephthalate)—are safe.

But can we trust the “common wisdom”?

Almost All Plastics Contain Hormone-Disrupting Chemicals

It’s logical to assume that plastics labeled “BPA-free” or “phthalate-free” or “PVC-free” are safe. However, in 2011, researchers in Austin, TX published a study* of 455 everyday products of different kinds of plastic (food containers, bottles, wrappers, etc.) from various retail sources.

Most of the plastics were BPA-free, and yet almost all of them were found to have “estrogenic effects” (EA), meaning they mimic the hormone estrogen in the body. To learn more about the health effects of hormone-disruptors, read Dr. Ty Vincent’s fabulous article on And to learn more about the study (in plain English) read the explanation on my blog.

The Secret Is In the Additives

The researchers also tested “barefoot” polymers, meaning pellets of the basic plastic before any other chemicals have been added to it. And while a few of these barefoot plastics (#2, #4, and #5) did not leach EA chemicals by themselves, nearly all commercial products made from these plastics did.

Why? Because nearly all plastic products contain additives to affect the various qualities of the plastic – strength, color, flexibility, stability, slipperiness, you name it. There are even antibacterial chemicals added to some “food safe” plastics, as well as flame retardants in other plastic products.

In 2008, some scientists in Alberta, Canada were doing an experiment using #5 polypropylene (a “safe” plastic) test tubes. They noticed their experiments kept getting contaminated, and they were confused, until they realized that antibacterial chemicals and slip agents were leaching out of the test tubes. They were shocked. They, like most people, had assumed that #5 plastic wouldn’t leach. But it can.

Which Plastics Contain Toxic Additives?

Here’s the biggest problem with plastic: We as consumers do not get to know what additives are in any particular plastic product because manufacturers are not required to disclose any of their proprietary formulae. And guess what. They won’t even disclose their secrets to the companies that use their plastic containers to package their food products.

So, if you were to call your favorite organic baby food company, for example, and ask what additives are in the plastic squeeze pouches they use, they would probably just tell you the plastic was FDA-approved food grade plastic because that’s all the information the manufacturer will provide them. And they might give you a list of chemicals that are not in the plastic (BPA, phthalates, etc.), but they won’t be able to tell you exactly what is in it.

Organic food in plastic packaging just doesn’t make sense to me. We choose organic foods to avoid toxic pesticides and fertilizers and synthetic hormones. And yet many of these same foods are packaged in a material that could be leaching hormone-disruptors back into our food.

Choose Healthier Options

Yesterday, I shared my Top 10 Tips for Reducing Your Plastic Footprint. Those tips can also help reduce your exposure to the chemicals in plastics. Tomorrow I’ll share my tips for getting plastic out of the kitchen. I’ll also share a brand new campaign to ask one our favorite appliance manufacturers to offer a plastic-free option. There are lots of ways to reduce our exposure to toxic chemicals. It’s not all bad news!

*Source: Most Plastic Products Release Estrogenic Chemicals: A Potential Health Problem That Can Be Solved, Environ Health Perspect. 2011 July 1; 119(7): 989–996.
**Source: Bioactive Contaminants Leach from Disposable Laboratory Plasticware. SCIENCE, Vol 322; 7 NOVEMBER 2008.

Published on: November 12, 2014
About the Author
Photo of Beth Terry
Beth Terry is the author the popular blog My Plastic-Free Life and book Plastic-Free: How I Kicked the Plastic Habit and How You Can Too. She is also a founding member of the Plastic Pollution Coalition.
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Recent Comments

This is just another example of how crucial information is kept from the consumer for the sake of the economy.. Respect to you for showing us the truth.. Andy Glass of PLASTIC FREE OCEAN, has been warning of the feminization of our society for years now.. Pls note BBC article entitled “PLASTIC CHEMICALS FEMINIZE BOYS” ..
I will show this to all who care. ty Beth