Is plastic disrupting my estrogen?

BPA-free plastic food containers and utensils remain ubiquitous in our kitchens. Photo by Miranda Marti, ND.

The investigative journalism magazine, Mother Jones, just published a compelling story on the presence of xenoestrogens in BPA-free plastics.

Xenoestrogens, synthetic chemicals that are capable of stimulating estrogen receptors in human (and other animal) bodies, are a growing concern worldwide. Exposure to xenoestrogens can come from the food supply, as they accumulate in the fat of animals that are exposed to some to them, primarily through herbicides and pesticides (atrazine is the most notorious), and then find their way into milk, butter, and meat. They can also come from direct contact with certain plastics, or from food  stored in plastic containers. The now-banned BPA-containing plastics were the most notorious offenders, but now we have strong reason to believe that they are not the only ones.

This topic is of significant interest to those of us at Whole Life Medicine who care for women with diseases of estrogen-dominance, such as PCOS, fibroids, endometriosis.  Is part of what’s driving these disease processes environmental exposure from plastics? And if so, how can we limit that exposure to protect our health?

I have a personal stake in this game. I am one of those estrogen-dominant women. I even have genetic test results that show my body is a slow estrogen metabolizer. What this means is that I don’t make a full compliment of the enzymes that break estrogen and estrogen-like chemicals down and inactivate them, so they spend a longer time in circulation with the opportunity to stimulate my estrogen receptors, which in the long run can cause tissues that are sensitive to estrogen to be overactive and create health problems.

I’d also like to state very clearly that I am not “anti-chemical” by any stretch of the imagination. I’ve had too many years of chemistry, organic chemistry and biochemistry education to fear “chemicals” or even “synthetic chemicals” generally; I understand that chemicals generally speaking make up pretty much everything we are and interact with and do not inherently pose a threat to health. But as an Environmental Studies-Biology major at Whitman College, I began getting curious if some of the synthetic chemicals we interact with on a daily basis like plasticizers, specifically phthalates, might not be interacting with our bodies’ hormone system in ways that could be harmful to our health.

Years after undergrad, my interest was reignited after reading Nena Baker’s The Body Toxic. In this book Baker, an investigative journalist, considers the evidence about what is and isn’t known about common industrial and synthetic chemicals that haven’t been subjected to rigorous safety screening; and whether multiple exposures from daily living might lead to a “chemical body burden” that is beyond the scope of individual safety profiles to comprehend. For example, if over the course of the day I am exposed to ScotchGuard and food heated in plastic and the  plastic in my toothbrush, those exposures together could accumulate to levels  that are dangerous, even if individually each exposure would be considered safe by the safety data on ScotchGuard, the plastic in my tupperware and the plastic in my tooth brush. Xenoestrogens feature prominently in the book as a case study for chemicals needing further human safety data.

What I took away from The Body Toxic is that BPA-contianing plastic is worth avoiding, but that BPA is probably not the end all and be all of  my xenoestrogen exposure because all plastic may be suspect, which is indeed the point that the recent Mother Jones article makes. And that foods that are moist or have an appreciable fat content are the ones most likely to leach xenoestrogens from their plastic containers into the food I would consume, so those are the foods I can prioritize creating, storing and consuming from non-plastic containers. I also read labels of all products that I put on my skin to avoid those containing “phthalates.”

To the right is a picture of my stash of containers for storing left-overs, prepared foods and things I don’t want to wilt in the refrigerator.

My glass food storage collection. Photo by Miranda Marti, ND

And after making those changes around 4-5 years ago, which proved to be sustainable in my life in terms of time and money spent on them, I considered myself reasonably protected. Certainly I still receive exposures to xenoestrogens but my goal isn’t 100% avoidance, it’s harm-reduction.

The new news on BPA-free plastic, however, has me wondering if that is enough. While the data on exposure to plastics and causation of estrogen-related diseases is not strong enough for me to offer much proscriptive advice. What I will say is probably in everybody’s best interest to avoid xenoestrogen exposure from plasticizers is:

  • Store moist or fat-containing foods in metal, ceramic or glass containers, not plastic.
  • Do not heat foods in plastic containers, no matter how microwave safe.
  • Check labels in grooming products to avoid anything with “phthalates.”
  • Be aware anything listed as “fragrance” may be diethyl phthalate (DEP).
  • Avoid air fresheners: many brands contain phthalates but are not required to list them on the label.
  • Choose ethylene vinyl acetate (EVA) over PVC plastics in toys and building materials, as EVA does not require plastic softeners, polyethylene or other plastic polymers.
  • Read the Mother Jones article on BPA-free plastics and other well-researched work on the issue, and check to make sure they cite their sources if they make strong claims about risk or safety.

Beyond that, I think it’s up to the individual to decide what’s right for them in terms of time and money costs, as well as availability. Here are some of the issues I’ve started thinking about in my pantry, which currently looks like this:

My plastic-filled pantry. Photo by Miranda Marti, ND.

What amongst this plastic-wrapped shelf must I worry about? The reality is, I don’t know that I can make the switch for everything that comes in plastic packaging. So here are the top three daily-consumed foods I’m considering making changes for re: purchasing and storing habits:

  • I love sunflower seed butter and use it almost every morning with breakfast, but the brand I’ve been buying lately from Trader Joe’s is in a plastic container, which is concerning because of the product’s high fat content. Perhaps it’s time to switch to a brand that comes in glass. This should be easy to do with the occasional trip to another store, such as PCC or Whole Foods.
  • For the past few years I’ve used coconut flour, which is high in fiber, to make my morning waffle. Ordinarily I wouldn’t worry too much about grains or flours in plastic packaging because these products are generally dry and have very little fat that could leach xenoestrogens, but coconut flour is an exception due to it’s fat content. I’d like to buy and store it in non-plastic packaging, but I don’t recall ever seeing it offered outside of a plastic bag. Perhaps there is a bulk buying option at PCC where I could bring my own glass or paper container….but honestly, will I? Those are extra steps to take that I might not be motivated to actually take, but I will at least explore my options.
  • Almonds are another food I consume frequently, going through at least a pound per week. I usually buy a 1 lb bag from Trader Joe’s or a 3 lb bag from Costco. Almonds are not moist, but they do have a considerable fat content. I know for sure I could buy the in bulk in a non-plastic container, but the price difference for doing so would be considerable compared to what I’m used to paying.

As I continue to peruse my pantry over the next several days, I’m sure I’ll come across many more oft-consumed items that are packaged or stored in plastic to consider. It’s an on-going process, and I’ll be sure to let you know if I come up with any brilliant ideas to avoid plastics without great inconvenience cost or inconvenience.

This post is courtesy of Dr. Miranda Marti.

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