Mighty Blog

Plastics on my mind (and yours, too)

Editor’s note: This post originally was published May 18, 2010. Dr. Tim Culbert is the former medical director of Integrative Medicine at Children’s Minnesota. 

Tim Culbert, MD

I don’t want to give away my age, but I remember a classic line from the 1967 movie “The Graduate,” where Dustin Hoffman gets some important career advice in a single word —“plastics.”

The plastics industry has been quite financially successful in the packaging and food container business over the past 30-40 years, but, as it turns out, this has likely come at a cost for us and our kids in terms of brain development and potentially the development of cancer, obesity and diabetes among other concerns.

I was thinking about plastics recently as I attended a new “product launch” party in New York City for the first-ever line of environmentally safe baby bottles and related products that are manufactured to be free of harmful chemicals called “endocrine disruptors.” It is a bit sad to me that this is such a big thing and took so long to get here. I was bottle-fed as an infant, as that was promoted to many moms back then. It made me think, “How many kids have been exposed over the years to plastic-related chemicals?”

A rather dramatic study from the Environmental Working Group examining the cord blood of 10 newborn babies from minority families showed that the blood samples contained 232 toxic chemicals at the time of birth. Some feel that the FDA and other government regulatory agencies have been asleep at the wheel for many years as it relates to this issue and that plastics-related toxins are only the tip of the iceberg.

Evidence is mounting that many commonly used plastic products that contain our favorite foods and drinks — including baby bottles, canned vegetables and water bottles — tend to leach chemicals called “endocrine disruptors” into our foods and beverages with serious long-term consequences to mind/body health. These chemicals — things like bisphenol A (BPA), polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) and phthalates, to name a few — are being linked to breast, prostate and ovarian cancers in adults, and to autism, ADHD and learning disabilities in children (as well as obesity and diabetes). The reality is that, with few exceptions, we have all been exposed to a lot of these chemicals as part of modern life. As a board-certified developmental pediatrician, I am amazed by the rapid increases in mental health and developmental diagnoses in childhood ADHD, autism and depression are all occurring in record numbers and we don’t know really know why. I think we may have missed something.

Other adults are now speaking out. I read about an interesting project called “Mind, Disrupted,” which details the toxic exposures of a group of 12 adults who have emotional/learning problems and offspring with learning disabilities. They tested themselves for the presence of 89 toxic chemicals, including lead, mercury and plastic residues. The study found that all 12 participants had at least 26 environmental toxins above acceptable levels in their bodies.

The Collaborative on Health and the Environment organization has a report by a working group on learning disabilities and developmental problems in kids (“Scientific Consensus Statement on Environmental Agents Associated with Neurodevelopmental Disorders”). Learn more here.

This report details the various potential links of environmental toxin exposure (the burden of which is higher in low-SES (socioeconomic status) kids and families and in developing nations) to a broad spectrum of learning, behavioral and emotional problems in childhood. We know that the developing nervous system in infants and kids is exquisitely sensitive to, even low doses of, endocrine-system chemicals (hormones). So, during windows of time when the developing fetus, infant and child is exposed to low levels of endocrine disruptors — and heavy metals and other pollutants — profound, detrimental changes can ensue within the developing human.

Where do we go from here?

Parents and kids need to let our government know that these regulatory issues need to be better-funded and enforced. We all need to heed a time-tested principle in public health, “The Precautionary Principle,” which states that “when an activity raises threats of harm to human health and or the environment, precautionary measures should be taken even if some cause and effect relationships are not fully established scientifically.” Simply stated, it means that until we know better, we should err on the side of caution in considering health risks. It is better to ban many of these chemicals that may do harm until we figure it out more definitively.

In the meantime, see the Green Guide for tips when buying plastics. A few tips follow:

  • Don’t microwave food in plastic containers.
  • Use fresh or frozen, not canned, vegetables.
  • Use metal water bottles.
  • Look for not just BPA-free bottles and utensils but for products made from materials like Triton that are free of “estrogenic activity.”