Have you ever microwaved your dinner in a take-out container? Eaten hot soup out of a plastic bowl? Left your bottled water sitting in the sun? A new report says you may be increasing your risk for breast cancer.
We’ve been hearing rumblings for years about the potential dangers of plastic, but a scientific report published this month draws startling conclusions confirming the link between household plastics and breast cancer. We spoke to Sonya Lunder, a researcher at the Environmental Working Group, to get the straight story on what’s safe and what’s not.
- Can you tell me what the latest research confirms (or doesn’t confirm) about plastics and cancer?
- There has been a longstanding concern about plastic, but it’s been really hard to pin down. Thanks to a study that came out in a leading journal two weeks ago, we have real proof that the mixture of chemicals in common household plastics triggers activity in breast cancer cells.
- Which plastics? How did they find this?
Researchers took 300 consumer plastic items–baby bottles, drink bottles, plastic bags, takeout containers and food wraps–and ran them through a series of tests to see what was coming out of them in lab conditions that mimicked heating in the microwave or running through the dishwasher. They took the water from these plastic containers and added it to a petri dish with women’s breast cancer cells. In almost all of them, it caused activity in those breast cancer cells.
- Does it only affect you if you already HAVE breast cancer?
- We all need to be wary, because these chemicals mimic estrogen, which is responsible for a lot of things in your body. Increased estrogen can have many different health effects including early puberty for girls, reduced sperm count for men, breast and prostate cancers, and resistance to cancer treatments.
- Wow. So what can you do? Should you throw out all your plastic containers?!
- You want to take precaution and use plastics appropriately. Don’t microwave food in plastic; don’t pour boiling hot food in plastic; don’t leave liquids sitting in plastic all day–especially in the sun. The heating and cooling cycle seems to break the plastic down and release these chemicals. Also, you need to discard plastic when it’s scratched, worn and starting to wear out. You can also put pressure on the federal government to do a better job of regulating what’s in these plastic products.
- What about dishwashing plastic? Bad idea?
- It’s hard to say, because you’re not drinking the dishwater, but it will cause the plastic to break down more rapidly.
- Are any plastics safe? What about BPA-free plastic?
- We can’t identify any completely safe plastics right now. There are so many chemicals and additives in plastic that it’s impossible to know which ones are harmful and which are not. The most well-studied and concerning chemical is BPA (bisphenol A) and that’s being phased out for baby bottles and some sports drinks bottles. Generally, we say BPA-free is less potent, but this study found that even BPA-free bottles had some estrogen-like activity. At EWG, we point people toward plastics with a 1, 2, 4 or 5 on the bottom–that’s the recycling code. But as consumer advocates, we don’t have access to detailed information about ingredients and their safety information so we can’t tell you that they are completely safe.
- Is there a worst kind of plastic?
- Definitely ones that have BPA–hard, clear rigid plastics that may have a number 7 on the bottom. There was a study at Harvard where students drank all their liquids out of these plastics for one week, and the BPA in their systems increased 80 percent!
- Are these chemicals anywhere other than plastic? What else should we be worried about?
- Surprisingly, canned food. Almost every canned-food company in the country uses BPA liners in their cans. Reducing your consumption of canned foods is a good idea. Estrogen-mimicking chemicals are also in soy products and many body-care products. Any increased exposure to estrogen–whether from a man-made chemical or your own body–comes with an increased cancer risk. So women who get their periods early or go through menopause late are at risk. The problem is, we’re living in a plastics age, and our bodies are being bombarded with these chemicals.
- What do you do in your own home?
- I use a lot of glass!
Senior AnalystSonya Lunder, MPH, is a Senior Analyst at Environmental Working Group, a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization, founded in 1993, with a mission to use the power of public information to protect public health and the environment.