The Healthy Home : Let’s Get Cooking (part 4) - Our Plastic Kitchen - Handle with Care

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2. Our Plastic Kitchen

Take a look around any room in your home and you’ll easily spot dozens of items that contain plastic: carpet fiber, clothing, even the paint on your walls. In less than a century this man-made material has become an indispensable part of our daily lives.

However, it also has the potential to compromise our health.

I’ve certainly given plastic—and its environmental impact—plenty of thought in the past fifteen years. After all, I run a company that packages most of its products in some form of plastic. The safety and quality of our finished product is our top priority, but we also strive to follow sustainable practices and actively seek viable alternatives to plastic packaging. Yet it was the birth of my son that made my professional interest in plastic become a much more personal concern.

Recent news stories have called attention to Bisphenol A (BPA), a chemical found in certain hard plastic products—including some baby bottles—that are linked to neural and behavioral problems in infants. The idea that I might feed my son with a bottle that could hurt him was disturbing, to say the least. So I set out to learn as much as I could about plastic:

• How it’s made
• What types are safest for my family
• Where I could easily reduce our risks in the home

I found that it was in the kitchen—where plastic is used to store, prepare, and serve the food and liquids we consume each day—that I could most easily make a positive impact.

What Is Plastic?

Plastic is a common term for a huge range of synthetic and semisynthetic solids, including nylon, PVC, polystyrene (Styrofoam), and polycarbonate. The most common raw materials used to manufacture plastic are crude oil and natural gas, from which compounds are extracted and eventually linked into flexible chains (polymers). In final processing, plastics often are modified with chemical additives to help create specific textures, colors, heat or light resistance, and flexibility.

Handle with Care

Despite the well-known durability of most plastic products, they will always have a small quantity of chemicals that are free to leach out under the right conditions. This is a problem because many of the building blocks used in plastics are highly toxic.

What’s more, there are other dangerous chemical additives—including stabilizers, plasticizers, and colorants—that aren’t part of the original polymer and can also leach out of the plastic and into our food, water, and soil.

Most of us learn when we’re young that we’re not allowed to throw a plastic bottle into the campfire even though it’s cool to watch the plastic shrivel up and melt into liquid. If we do so, toxic gases—dioxins—are released and are extremely dangerous, especially if inhaled. Unfortunately, it’s not very difficult to degrade your kitchen plasticware in the same way, whether or not you can see it or smell it happening.

Toxic Communication

Many of the chemicals in plastic products have structural similarities to the hormones that provide communication throughout the human body, or they can bind to the steroid receptors on cell membranes and disrupt hormone actions. The same additives that provide flexibility, color, and flame retardant characteristics to plastic containers, for example, can migrate into food or water and have unintended effects on humans and animals.

“Environmental signaling” refers to the biological effects caused by chemicals in our environment that mimic natural hormones, and it’s a rapidly developing hypothesis for how certain toxic elements in the environment are causing adverse health effects. Called endocrine disruptors, these chemicals can alter the body’s hormone system and produce adverse developmental, reproductive, neurological, and immunological effects. If this hypothesis is correct, then the victims are ourselves and our pets.

Developing fetuses and infants, whose neural and reproductive systems are still being formed, run the greatest risk of damage from endocrine disruptors. In laboratory studies, adverse consequences such as low fertility, premature sexual development, and cancer have been linked to early exposure to these hormone mimics.

These synthetic compounds are sending messages to us, but when our cells receive the information, they are confused and, as a result, cellular function is distorted.
Heating and microwaving, repeated washing with harsh detergents in dishwashers, scratching or cracking, and prolonged contact with fatty foods and oils will damage plastic enough to allow dangerous chemicals to leach out.
Wait, let’s read that list again.
• Cleaning in the dishwasher
• Microwaving
• Storing with fatty or acidic foods

Heating and microwaving, repeated washing with harsh detergents in dishwashers, scratching or cracking, and prolonged contact with fatty foods and oils will damage plastic enough to allow dangerous chemicals to leach out.

Those conveniences are what most people like about their plastic bowls, plates, cups, and containers! But the alternative is to wash all of your plasticware by hand, and never use it when warming up your food. So it’s time to ask yourself: Why bother having it at all?

That’s why my wife and I are methodically moving our kitchen to glass, which has none of the health issues inherent to plastic. In the interest of our health and the health of our child, we’ve purchased glass baby bottles, glass storage containers, and glass measuring cups, and we’re doing away with plastic items that can degrade and leach toxins into our food.
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