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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.
Question from Larry
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.
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?
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.
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?
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.
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.
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?
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
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!
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?