The word in the media is that plastic containers will cause cancer, toenail warts and, according to some, the end of the world. Although exaggerated, there is some truth to the rumors about unsafe plastic. There are also safe plastics that are good to know about!
It started 1987 when Tufts Medical School researchers were conducting experiments on breast cancer cells in plastic test tubes. The cancer cells were experiencing unusual growth. When looking for the cause, they found that chemicals in the plastic test tubes were leaching into the cultures. Since then, dozens of studies from other universities and clinics have proven the plastic-cancer link in test animals.
The bigger problem is that some of these same chemicals can leach into food or water stored in plastic containers!
Changes Made in Food Grade Plastics
Fortunately, this plastic-cancer discovery launched a good deal of research into designing better plastics. Not all plastics are the same – just as there are many grades different grades of steel. While some of these old plastics are still made (they are usually cheaper than newer, better grades), much better forms are plastic are available today. Though, obviously, different from glass and metals, some of these new plastics are much safer and more stable than the old plastics.
The U.S. Food & Drug Administration (FDA) requires that plastics used in food packaging be of greater purity than plastics used for non-food packaging. This is commonly referred to as food grade plastic. Plastics used to package pharmaceuticals are held to an even higher standard than food grade.
Food grade plastic does not contain dyes or recycled plastic deemed harmful to humans. However, this does not mean that food grade plastic cannot contain recycled plastic. The FDA has detailed regulations concerning recycled plastics in food packaging.
Although the FDA has approved all plastics currently being used to package food, they might not all be safe. An estrogen-like compound in plastic could be posing risks to the brain development of infants and children. BPA, a component of polycarbonate plastic, can leach from baby bottles, water bottles and other hard plastic containers.
Not all plastics have been identified as unsafe. Out of the seven types of plastics used in packaging, four are still considered safe. So, how can you tell the difference between the safe plastics and the dangerous ones? It is as easy as looking at the recycling number on the bottom of the container. There is a little triangle on the bottom of plastic containers with a number inside it. This number identifies the type of plastic that is being used.
Plastic Grades and Safety
In the United States, the following codes represent the seven categories of plastic used in nearly all plastic containers and product packaging. Most rate them as Best, OK, and Avoid:
(1) PET or PETE (polyethylene terephthalate) – is a clear, tough polymer with exceptional gas and moisture barrier properties. PET’s ability to contain carbon dioxide (carbonation) makes it ideal for use in soft drink bottles.
(2) HDPE (high density polyethylene) – is used in milk, juice and water containers in order to take advantage of its excellent protective barrier properties. Its chemical resistance properties also make it well suited for items such as containers for household chemicals and detergents.
(3) Vinyl (polyvinyl chloride, or PVC) – provides excellent clarity, puncture resistance and cling. As a film, vinyl can breathe just the right amount, making it ideal for packaging fresh meats that require oxygen to ensure a bright red surface while maintaining an acceptable shelf life.
(4) LDPE (low density polyethylene) – offers clarity and flexibility. It is used to make bottles that require flexibility. To take advantage of its strength and toughness in film form, it is used to produce grocery bags and garbage bags, shrink and stretch film, and coating for milk cartons.
(5) PP (polypropylene) – has high tensile strength, making it ideal for use in caps and lids that have to hold tightly on to threaded openings. Because of its high melting point, polypropylene can be hot-filled with products designed to cool in bottles, including ketchup and syrup. It is also used for products that need to be incubated, such as yogurt. Many Cambo, Tupperware and Rubbermaid food storage containers are made from PP.
(6) PS (polystyrene) – in its crystalline form, is a colorless plastic that can be clear and hard. It can also be foamed to provide exceptional insulation properties. Foamed or expanded polystyrene (EPS) is used for products such as meat trays, egg cartons, coffee cups, plastic foam and packing peanuts.
(7) Other – denotes plastics made from other types of resin or from several resins mixed together. These usually cannot be recycled.
Good: # 2, 4, or 5:
Containers with a 2, 4, or 5 inside the triangle are the safest. If it is a #2 HDPE (high density polyethylene), a #4 LDPE (low density polyethylene), or a #5 PP (polypropylene), your bottle is fine. Most water, milk and liquid containers have been switched to these plastics. They are safe for storing liquids and food products. Some may claim to be microwave safe but we do not recommend using them in a microwave.
OK: # 1:
The type of plastic bottle in which water is usually sold, PET or PETE (polyethylene terephthalate), is usually a #1. Many people only recommended it for a one-time use and don’t refill them. It is better to use a reusable water bottle, and fill it with your own filtered water from home.
AVOID: # 3, 6 or 7
#3 PVC, or vinyl, is used in plastic wraps, food containers, soft bottles, wrappings for meat and cheese. It is made with chlorine and releases dioxins which have been linked to cancer (including breast and prostate), hormonal imbalances, high blood pressure, heart disease, autoimmune disease, weight problems, and chronic fatigue. Phthalates, which make the plastic flexible and used in products ranging from shampoo to floor coverings, have recently been cited in a study that linked their exposure to smaller genitals in infant boys and an increase in testicular cancer about adults.
#6 Polystyrene or styrofoam: used as takeout containers, plastics cups, and cutlery. Its components leach into fatty foods and are believed to interfere with hormones.
#7 Misc. category that includes polycarbonate (PC): Used for most clear-plastic bottles, including 5-gallon water bottles and baby bottles. When heated, they release BPA, a hormone disrupter that imitates the female hormone estradiol which may be linked to breast and ovarian cancer.
We would hope that following these guidelines will help to both assure you on which plastics are safe to use and which to avoid.