How to Avoid Harmful Chemicals in Plastic

Reduce Exposure to Toxic Household Plastics

Everyday plastic items contain many chemicals, some of which have documented negative health impacts. Most notably, phthalates and bisphenols are known endocrine disruptors and have health impacts ranging from reproductive development and fertility issues to behavioral problems and asthma in children. Exposure to these chemicals is especially concerning during fetal development, infancy, and childhood.

Research still needs to be done to fully understand the health impacts of these additives, but we know that at least some of them are toxic, and all can leach out of the plastic products we use everyday. As the New York Times reported in a 2020 story, this means we are all touching, eating, drinking, and breathing toxic chemicals. Here's how you can reduce your family's exposure to toxic chemicals contained in common household plastics.

Plastics to Avoid
  1. Avoid eating foods stored in plastic. When possible, buy and eat food without plastic packaging, including whole foods or unwrapped items. If this isn't realistic, you can transition your food into metal and glass containers when you get home.
  2. Swap out plastic containers labeled with codes 3, 6, and 7. It may not always be possible to avoid plastic food packaging and storage containers. If you cannot avoid it entirely, certain plastics are worse than others. Plastics marked with recycling code 3 are known to contain phthalates, while those with recycling code 7 contain bisphenols. Plastics labeled with recycling code 6 contain styrene, a probable carcinogen according to the National Institutes of Health. Plastics 3, 6, and 7 are also the least recyclable.
Household Products to Replace
  1. Swap out plastic toys. When shopping for new toys, choose items made from non-plastic materials such as wood or silicone. This is especially important for infants and toddlers who are likely to put toys in their mouths.
  2. Replace vinyl products. Phthalates are commonly found in vinyl products in your home, such as placemats, floors and shower curtains. Use of these products can release chemicals linked to health issues for adults and children.
  3. Use a HEPA-filtered vacuum. If you can, purchase a HEPA-filtered vacuum. These can filter out tiny chemical particles, while other vacuums release the chemicals in the air blown out of the back.
Cooking and Storing Without Plastic
  1. Do not heat plastics. Stop washing plastic items in the dishwasher or heating them in the microwave, and avoid putting already hot foods into plastic containers. Higher temperatures increase the likelihood of chemicals leaching from the plastic. Changing this small habit will reduce the risk that harmful toxics find their way into your food and drinks. 
  2. Ditch the plastic wrap. Plastic wrap is known to contain phthalates. So, when it's time to store your leftovers, reusable glass or metal containers, beeswax wraps, aluminum foil or parchment paper can be a better option.
  3. Add a few extra steps to your plastic baby bottle sterilization routine. A 2020 study found that plastic baby bottles can shed millions of microplastics into formula or breast milk. The good news is, you can greatly reduce infants’ exposure to microplastics from baby bottles. First, after sterilizing plastic bottles in hot water and letting them cool, rinse them out three times with water boiled in a glass or stainless steel container that has cooled to room temperature. Second, prepare baby formula in a non-plastic container (glass or stainless steel), and allow it to cool before transferring it to a sterilized and rinsed plastic bottle. Alternatively, parents can use glass bottles covered with a silicone sleeve to prevent breakage.