• U.S.

Poisonous Plastics?

3 minute read
Jeffrey Kluger

Odds are your plastic food wrap is not going to kill you. You’re probably in no immediate danger from the plastic bowl you used to store last night’s spaghetti or from the IV bag from which you once got a blood transfusion.

Over time, though, according to a growing body of evidence, the chemicals that make up many plastics may migrate out of the material and into foods and fluids, ending up in your body. Once there they could make you very sick indeed. That’s what a group of environmental watchdogs has been saying, and the medical community is starting to listen.

The plastic products raising the loudest alarms are made of a material known as polyvinyl chloride, or PVC. To make PVC pliable, manufacturers treat it with softeners known as phthalates (pronounced thalates)–loosely bound chemicals that easily leach out of the plastic. In the U.S. millions of IV bags made of PVC are used annually. If the liquids the bags contain pick up stray phthalates, they can be transfused straight into the veins of patients. Animal studies suggest that phthalates can damage the liver, heart, kidneys and testicles, and may cause cancer. “We don’t know the toxicity mechanism,” says Charlotte Brody, a registered nurse and a coordinator of Health Care Without Harm, a Falls Church, Va., advocacy group. “But the evidence is troubling.”

It’s not just hospital patients who are at risk. Many plastic products–from food wraps to toys–contain similar softeners, known as adipates. A study by the independent Consumer’s Union found that cheese wrapped in deli-counter plastic contained high levels of adipates; some commercial wraps left low but measurable traces too. Toys–at least ones meant for toddlers–can be just as worrisome, since they may spend as much time in babies’ mouths as in their hands. Whether any of this causes immediate or even cumulative harm is not known.

Preliminary as these findings are, groups like Brody’s have seen enough. Some hospitals in Europe have switched to PVC-free IV bags and tubes, and U.S. activists are calling for the same step here. PVC manufacturers object, insisting that their products are safe and arguing that animals in plastic studies are given far higher levels of PVC than a human would ever absorb. In at least one experiment, however, rats were deliberately given low PVC doses and still showed ill effects. Abbott Laboratories, a PVC maker, admits there is too little data to draw hard conclusions; with some of its IV bags, it includes a flyer warning of that.

Household products are less of a concern. Consumers can look for wraps made of polyethylene instead of PVC. To play it even safer, food should never be microwaved in any plastic wrap since this speeds adipate migration. Plastic bowls marked microwavable are probably safer than those that aren’t; glass or china bowls are even better. Beyond that, there’s little any consumer can do. “Industry develops these products for their physical characteristics,” says Peter Orris, a professor of internal medicine at Cook County Hospital in Chicago, “but it doesn’t always test them for human toxicity.” For now it appears, that testing is being conducted in the human population.

–By Jeffrey Kluger

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Write to Jeffrey Kluger at jeffrey.kluger@time.com