The Healthy Home : Let’s Get Cooking (part 6) - Our Plastic Kitchen - Plastic Wrap, The Plastic Code

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Plastic Wrap

For years the plastic wrap you would place around your baked goods and leftovers was made from polyvinyl chloride (PVC).

PVC is a hard, resinous material that requires plasticizers, stabilizers, flame retardants, and lubricants to be of any practical value. These additives—which aren’t chemically bonded to the plastic’s basic building blocks—are what make PVC one of the most toxic plastics in our homes today.

One such additive, phthalic acid, is often used in PVC to increase pliability. As we learned earlier, phthalates have numerous adverse health effects, including metabolism interference, thyroid dysfunction, early puberty, and allergies. One of the most consistent reports concerns reproductive impairment of young boys, and this result likely occurs in the womb. When a pregnant woman is exposed to phthalates—whether from plastic or personal-care products—this harmful chemical can cross the placenta and enter fetal circulation. Problems for boys exposed to phthalates in this manner may include depleted male hormone levels, undescended testes, decreased fertility, and an increased risk of testicular cancer.

You read that correctly: It’s possible that an infant boy who is exposed to phthalates while in his mother’s womb could feel the effects twenty or thirty years later with testicular cancer.

It’s possible that an infant boy who is exposed to phthalates while in his mother’s womb could feel the effects twenty or thirty years later with testicular cancer.

Due to consumer concerns about phthalates, most major manufacturers have begun using a different plastic—low-density polyethylene (LDPE)—to make plastic-wrap products for regular home use. Although LDPE-based plastic wrap doesn’t contain phthalates, it’s less effective than wrap made from PVC at clinging to packaging and sealing in odors. (You may have noticed this yourself and wondered what had changed.)

Thus, most delis, butchers, caterers, and restaurants continue to use PVC-based wrap.

Fortunately, it’s not that hard to reduce your exposure to PVC, even from deli and grocery store packaging. National Geographic’s “Green Guide” gives this advice: Unwrap your product when you get home from the grocery store. If possible, trim away any meat or cheese that was touching the PVC wrap or Styrofoam tray, and then store it in a glass container that seals with a lid.

Simple Solution:
If you use plastic wrap, ensure it’s LDPE-based plastic, and regardless of what type it is, never use it in the microwave.

The Plastic Code

Plastics are categorized based on their chemical makeup and the extent to which they can be recycled. By learning to recognize the symbols and numbers on the bottom of your plastic purchases, you can make better choices for you and your family. These numbers appear in a triangular symbol that looks like this.

01 (PET):Polyethylene terephthalate is used in high-impact packaging, water and soft drink bottles, cooking oil containers, and microwave food trays. Considered safe under normal conditions but will degrade over time.
02 (PE-HD/HDPE):High-density polyethylene, the more durable form of PET, is used for opaque or cloudy containers that hold personal-care products, vitamins, detergents, milk jugs, and motor oil. Not appropriate for hot liquids. It’s considered safe under normal conditions but will degrade over time.
03 (PVC):Polyvinyl chloride is found in shower curtains, meat and cheese wrappers, binders, some shrink wrap, plumbing materials, vinyl flooring, and much, much more. Contains highly toxic phthalate plasticizers that can leach into food or beverages. Avoid whenever and wherever possible, especially in the kitchen.
04 (PE-LD/LDPE):Low-density polyethylene is used in shopping bags, CD cases, computers, most consumer shrink wrap, and product packaging. It’s generally considered safe.
05 (PP):Polypropylene is found in bottle caps, diapers, lots of kitchenware, yogurt and cottage cheese containers, and electronic product packaging. Heat-resistant, reusable, and considered the safest plastic for human use.
06 (PS):Polystyrene is used in take-out food containers, drinking cups, egg cartons, and building materials. Composed of possible human carcinogens. Known to degrade and leach toxins when exposed to high heat or oil; avoid whenever and wherever possible.
07 (O):All other plastics not listed above are placed in this “other” category, as indicated by the “O,” including polycarbonate, polyurethane, acrylic, fiberglass, nylon, and more environmentally friendly hybrid plastics. Many are considered safe, but be aware that polycarbonate bottles that contain BPA are considered part of this group.

These are the key pieces of information you should take away from this chart:

• The safest plastics to use (and reuse) are denoted with the number 5 (PP).
• Plastics in the 1 (PET), 2 (PE-HD), and 4 (PE-LD) categories are generally safe, but have some issues with toxicity and a limited shelf life.
• Avoid products labeled 3 (PVC), 6 (PS), and 7 (O) in regard to food or liquid packaging (unless you know for certain the number 7 plastic is a special biodegradable hybrid).

Our Plastic World

Most plastic is made from nonrenewable resources such as crude oil. That alone should give us pause because it’s a nonrenewable resource upon which so much depends. But even if we had access to unlimited petroleum, we would still need to recognize that the same properties that make plastic so incredible—relative durability and chemical stability—can also make plastic a major threat to our environment.

If not recycled or disposed of properly, plastic ends up in our waterways, degrading so slowly that there are now massive “plastic islands” floating in the Pacific and Atlantic oceans. Bit by bit, lighters, trinkets, grocery bags, and containers break into smaller fragments that fish, marine mammals, and seabirds mistake for food.

This can be a lethal mistake—both for the animals and for us.

Suddenly, the toxins we’ve worked so hard to avoid in our home are found in the marine food chain, where they will make their way back to our dinner tables.
By making some of the small changes that we’ve discussed in these pages, such as recycling plastic whenever possible and encouraging those around you to do the same, you can make a positive difference in your health and the health of our world.

Simple Solution:
Purchase reusable grocery bags made of natural materials such as cotton and use them as often as you can.
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