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Are All Plastics Toxic?

Photo by Merakist on Unsplash

We often hear that some types of plastics are safer or less toxic than others, but what does that really mean? There are many guides available that categorize plastics according to their toxicity.  These guides can be misleading because most plastic consumer products have additives to enhance their functionality.  A single plastic product can contain dozens of chemical additives.  Most manufacturers don’t disclose those chemicals which makes it very difficult to assess the toxicity of a particular item.

 

Chemical Additives Can Be More Harmful Than the Plastics Themselves

 

One study tested over 400 plastic food packaging products including baby bottles, plastic bags, deli-containers, and water bottles.  Most of the products leached chemicals that have estrogenic activity, meaning they mimic human estrogen, which has been linked to adverse health effects.  Products that were stressed to replicate normal usage leached even more.  Also, some BPA-free products leached at greater levels than BPA-containing products.

A surprising result of the study was that some of the products that leached these harmful chemicals were made of plastics thought to be safe including:

  • polypropylene (yogurt cups, ketchup bottles),
  • low-density polyethylene or LDPE (grocery bags, food storage bags),
  • high-density polyethylene or HDPE (milk jugs, butter tubs, juice bottles).

The study went on show that in these particular materials, it was the additives and not the plastics themselves that were the source of the leached chemicals.  When they tested pure polyethylene and polypropylene resins with no chemical additives there was no detectable levels of chemicals with estrogenic activity.  Additives are more likely to leach because, in most cases, they aren’t chemically bound to the plastic (1).

This highlights why it’s so important for manufacturers to disclose all of the materials used in their products.  Safer plastics are possible.  But without full transparency, it is very difficult to determine the toxicity of any individual item.

 

Treatments Added to Finished Plastics May Also Be Toxic

 

I’m often asked if plastic fabrics such as Nylon or polyester are non-toxic.  In their pure forms, they are relatively inert.  However, treatments can be applied to add features such as waterproofing to nylon or wrinkle-resistance to polyester.  For example, most nylon raincoats will have some type of Durable Water Repellent (DWR).   Most DWRs are made with perfluorinated compounds (PFCs) which are linked to numerous health concerns and are persistent in the environment.  Some manufacturers are working to find PFC-free waterproofing treatments but they are not yet as effective.  See a statement from Patagonia, the outdoor retailer, on their progress with finder safer alternatives.

 

When you can’t determine all of the additives or treatments, here are some general tips to follow:

  • Always avoid plastics known to be harmful to humans and the environment. Avoid PVC, Polystyrene, and Polycarbonate.
  • Avoid all plastic products that come in contact with food or drink. If you must use plastic, avoid heating and dishwashing.  When the plastic becomes scratched or damaged, throw it out.
  • Look for manufacturers that fully disclose the additives and treatments used in and on their products.
  • Consider how and when the product will be used to determine the exposure to you and your family.  For example, a plastic storage bag used to hold paper clips is much less of a concern than one used to hold orange slices for a child’s lunchbox.

 

Elastics in Clothing

Question from Larry

Was wondering what your opinion on spandex,elastane,or etc in clothing. I’m in the middle of buying some clothing such as jeans and short most of it is organic cotton and organic wool.There is also some non organic cotton pieces as well but on most of them (shorts and pants mainly) they all seem to have a small percentage of elastics. I had looked online about it before contacting you  and my questions what is spandex made of and is it toxic to wear even in small amounts?

 

Lisa’s Answer

Spandex, also know as elastane or the brand name Lycra, is made of at least 85% polyurethane.  Like other synthetic fabrics, the cause for concern is in the chemicals used during the finishing process.  Some sensitive people may react to spandex due to these chemical treatments.  If you are buying clothes from a company that uses organic cotton and wool, they are likely knowledgeable about the spandex they use and what chemicals it may contain.  Give them a call.

If you are not someone who is sensitive to spandex, I would not be concerned about this small exposure.

Nylon in Socks

Question from Larry

All the socks I like to workout in have a decent percentage of nylon included in them.I’ve heard nylon is also quite toxic.  Do you, or readers, know of a good, sock to run and/or workout in without nylon or is nylon ok to have in small percentages when buying socks?

Lisa’s Answer

Pure nylon is relatively non-toxic.  It is the finishes that are toxic.  Nylon used in socks are probably free of finishes.  Read more about additive and finishes in plastic here.  I wear cotton or wool socks when I am not working out or for hiking but I do use socks with nylon for other exercise.  It is a minor exposure.  Readers, have you found workout socks that have 100% natural fibers?

Non-Toxic Sleep System for Sale

Question from Jackie

I am trying to sell my non-toxic sleep system because it is not comfortable for me.  Our king size bed has 2 coconut coir bed mats, medium dunlop latex from Savvy Rest, Shepherd’s Dream Wool mattress, and 2 wool toppers.

Lisa’s Answer

Readers, if you are interested submit a note to me on the contact form and I will put you in touch with Jackie.

Off-Gassing Furniture

Question from Clara

I am currently doing a bakeout in my garage. I have a pleather couch I am trying to off gas and a table and chairs. Will the bake out off gas furniture? if so how long would it take?

Lisa’s Answer

I am no longer recommending bake outs.  Debra has had success in the past with clients using bake outs to accelerate off-gassing, but there has been research indicating that it can actually increase off-gassing and extend off-gassing in some cases.  It is impossible to tell how it will work in each individual environment.  Look for more information on an upcoming post.  Also, a bake out would not work on something like polyurethane foam in a coach as that will off-gas indefinitely.

Non-Stick Cookware

Question from Nancy

Is there a truly “non-stick” safe skillet? Even with Xtrema cookware they suggest using some type of oil and their skillets are on backorder.

Lisa’s Answer

I use an Xtrema skillet and a cast iron skillet and I rotate them.  I have a small stainless steel skillet that I use occasionally for eggs.  Read my thoughts on stainless steel cookware here.
There are “green” non-stick skillets on the market, such as Green Pan, that claim to be PFAS and PFOA free and to have Not-Detected levels of lead or cadmium.  If a “green” pan manufacturer will disclose their third-party testing and it confirms the above claims, it is probably okay to use.  I would avoid cooking acidic food in it and throw it away if it gets badly scratched or the coating chips.  Most are made with an aluminum core and could leach aluminum if the coating is compromised.

Crumbling Polyurethane Coating

Question from JoAnneh

I am a Pilates fusion teacher and yoga teacher.  In many of the corporate group exercise rooms I teach in, we use weights coated with polyurethane or neoprene.  In many cases these coatings are cracked, chipped or falling off in pieces. I have read that these disintegrating materials are quite dangerous to 1) touch, re: skin toxicity, 2) to hold (as they continue to fall apart with use and expose the student to bits of toxic chemicals both on the skin and in the air), and 3) to breath near, as the materials send small bits of inhaling-friendly chemicals into the lungs. I did a study for our town on leaf blowers and found that even the smallest microns of particulate matter blown into the air from them enters the lungs, passes the blood brain barrier, and causes all sorts of disorders, including contributing to heart disease, high blood, ADD like symptoms, and even–long term–Alzheimer’s symptoms.  I’m wondering if the materials on these falling-apart weights are just as dangerous?  The management has been slow to address this.

Lisa’s Answer

I can’t speak to how these specific materials would enter the environment.  One concern is that antimicrobials, which are sometimes added to plastic to prevent mold growth, can release nanoparticles into the environment.  Here is a study about nanoparticles escaping from plastic coating.

Is Marble Toxic?

Question from Anonymous

Is marble non-toxic or does marble cause cancer?

I have a black marble mortar and pestle from IKEA and I’m wondering if black marble is safe and non-toxic or should I be concerned about using a black marble mortar and pestle?

Lisa’s Answer

Natural marble is non-toxic.  I don’t know if the product was sealed with anything to keep it from staining.  You could call IKEA and ask if it is sealed or treated with anything.

Choosing a Safe Steam Iron

Ironing

Many of you have asked for help finding a non-toxic steam iron. The main concern with steam irons is that several models have non-stick coatings such as Teflon, the best-known brand name for polytetrafluoroethylene (PTFE). When PTFEs are heated to high temperatures they break down and release toxic chemicals. Some non-stick coatings may be free of PTFEs, but it is very difficult to find out which chemicals the coatings do contain.

Fortunately, there is an easy way to find a safer iron. Most irons have one of three types of soleplates. The soleplate is the bottom of the iron that comes into contact with your clothes. The most common types of soleplates are stainless steel, ceramic, and titanium. Stainless steel soleplates are the preferred type because they do not have non-stick coatings.

Many top-rated steam irons have stainless steel plates but there are pros and cons of using them. The advantages are durability, good heat conduction, even heat distributions and ease of maintenance. The main complaint with stainless steel soleplates is that they can cause sticking of glue or decals on their surface. Additionally, they can melt silk or other lightweight fabrics when used on a high setting.

The following stainless steel irons are highly rated on Amazon. Don’t be confused if some manufacturers refer to their stainless steel soleplates as non-stick. This does not mean that it has a chemical coating. It simply refers to the inherent non-stick property of the metal surface. I confirmed with each of the manufacturers below that they do not use non-stick coatings on their stainless steel models.

Rowenta DW5080 1700-Watt Micro Steam Iron 
Look for the model made in Germany.  Readers report leaking from the model made in China.
Pur Steam Professional Grade 1700-Watt Steam Iron .
Hamilton Beach Steam Iron with Retractable Cord (14881)
Maytag M400 Steam Iron 
Sunbeam Steam Master 

Ironing board covers can also be treated with PTFEs. Here is an untreated, 100% cotton cover.

Unfortunately, none of these options will make ironing more fun…just healthier!

Sources:
Minnesota Pollution Control Agency 2018, Are you cooking with these? Cookware considerations., accessed 29 July 2019, http://www.pca.state.mn.us/featured/are-you-cooking-these-cookware-considerations.
IronsExpert 2017, Clothing Iron’s Sole Plate Types — Ceramic vs Stainless vs Titanium, accessed 29 July 2019, http://medium.com/@ironsexpert/steam-iron-soleplate-types-ceramic-stainless-titanium-62c60efefe7c.

DriCore Subfloor Panels

Question from Llya

I’m currently finishing my basement and planning to use DriCore subfloor panels.
It is almost impossible to find health effects of this product.
Would you know if the product emits formaldehyde or other chemicals dangerous for health?

Lisa’s Answer

The MSDS states that it is bonded with formaldehyde adhesive, so I would expect that it emits formaldehyde.

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