Are All Plastics Dangerous?

With all the grim news about plastics and plastic products, with much of this information already presented in my posts here on this blog, it brings to mind the question of whether there are safe plastics or not. Are all plastics poison? Or are there some that we can handle without fear? This question interested me so I thought I’d investigate.

Looking around on the web, I found quite a few articles about the dangerous chemicals in plastic and why plastic is dangerous to the human body. It took a little more digging and research to pull together a list of plastics and plastic products that are more benign. Here is what I discovered about both, in a handy, easy to reference, list:

Polyethylene Terephthalate (PET or PETE)

According to Wikipedia, “PET is used in synthetic fibers; beverage, food and other liquid containers; thermoforming applications; and engineering resins often in combination with glass fiber. The majority of the world’s PET production is for synthetic fibers (in excess of 60%) with bottle production accounting for around 30% of global demand. In discussing textile applications, PET is generally referred to as simply “polyester” while “PET” is used most often to refer to packaging applications”.

Used to make bottles for packaging soft drinks, water, sports drinks, ketchup, and salad dressing and jars for peanut butter, pickle, jelly and jam.

Also used for making “thermal insulation, such as “space blankets”. Because of its high mechanical strength, PET film is often used in tape applications, such as the carrier for magnetic tape or backing for pressure sensitive adhesive tapes.” This also from Wikipedia.

WHAT’S GOOD: Not known to leach any chemicals that are suspected of causing cancer or disrupting hormones. Also the easiest of all plastics to recycle, making them more “earth friendly” than other plastics that are less readily identifiable.

High Density Polyethylene (HDPE)

This is another plastic product made exclusively from petroleum. HDPE is widely used in the pyrotechnics trade. HDPE mortars are preferred to steel or PVC tubes because they are more durable and more importantly they are much safer compared to steel or PVC. Milk bottles and other hollow goods manufactured through blow molding are the most important application area for HDPE – More than 8 million tons, or nearly one third of worldwide production, was applied here.

Used to make Milk, water, and juice bottles, yogurt and margarine tubs, cereal box liners, and grocery, trash, and retail bags. Also used to make laundry detergent bottles, fuel tanks for cars, plastic lumber, folding tables and chairs, storage sheds, plastic bags, hula hoops and water pipes.

WHAT’S GOOD: Not known to leach any chemicals that are suspected of causing cancer or disrupting hormones. No known cases of danger or damage to humans or animals.

WHAT’S BAD: Use of petroleum in the manufacture continues to create problems for the environment. The good side, however, is that it does not give off emissions.

Polyvinyl Chloride (V or PVC)

According to Wikipedia: “Polyvinyl chloride, (IUPAC Poly(chloroethanediyl)) commonly abbreviated PVC, is the third most widely used thermoplastic polymer after polyethylene and polypropylene. In terms of revenue generated, it is one of the most valuable products of the chemical industry. Around the world, over 50% of PVC manufactured is used in construction. As a building material, PVC is cheap, durable, and easy to assemble.”

This puts PVC in your home, your office and just about everywhere you go. Also, from Wikipedia, “PVC’s intrinsic properties make it suitable for a wide variety of applications. It is biologically and chemically resistant, making it the plastic of choice for most household sewerage pipes and other pipe applications where corrosion would limit the use of metal.” It is, as I said before, EVERYWHERE.

Used in making clothing (common in goth, punk and alternative fashions), electric wires, pipes, portable electronics, signs, cements, ceiling tiles, AND most cling-wrapped meats, cheeses, and other foods sold in delicatessens and groceries are wrapped in PVC. So you are eating it, too!

WHAT’S BAD: This nightmare product is awful no matter what or where. It leaches Dioxin into the environment and this is the major reason we no longer break down and recycle plastics made of PVC. In fact, these plastics are sent to landfills in the third world, where large numbers of poor folk are suffering with cancer. It is one of the deadliest plastics and to protect yourself and your children, avoid it at all costs.

FYI: To soften into its flexible form, manufacturers add “plasticizers” during production. Traces of these chemicals can leach out of PVC when in contact with foods. According to the National Institutes of Health, di-2-ethylhexyl phthalate (DEHP), commonly found in PVC, is a suspected human carcinogen. So be careful when buying cheeses and meats- ask the deli to leave off the wrapper and don’t buy the stuff in ready wraps.

Low-Density Polyethylene (LDPE)

According to Wikipedia, “Low-density polyethylene (LDPE) is a thermoplastic made from petroleum. It was the first grade of polyethylene, produced in 1933 by Imperial Chemical Industries (ICI) using a high pressure process via free radical polymerisation. Its manufacture employs the same method today. LDPE is commonly recycled, and has the number “4” as its recycling symbol.” This is the plastic that all the health and environmental advocates are telling you to buy. It is safer than most of the others.

It is used in making trays, food storage containers and bags, work surfaces, six pack soda can rings, computer components, playground slides, some bread and frozen food bags and squeezable bottles.

WHAT’S GOOD: Not known to leach any chemicals that are suspected of causing cancer or disrupting hormones. There are no known cases of human or animal health concerns.

WHAT’S BAD: This plastic is not as widely recycled as plastic labeled #1 or #2.

Polypropylene (PP)

According to Wikipedia, “Polypropylene or polypropene (PP) is a thermoplastic polymer, made by the chemical industry and used in a wide variety of applications, including packaging, textiles (e.g. ropes, thermal underwear and carpets), stationery, plastic parts and reusable containers of various types, laboratory equipment, loudspeakers, automotive components, and polymer banknotes. An addition polymer made from the monomer propylene, it is rugged and unusually resistant to many chemical solvents, bases and acids.”

You can see that this plastic is everywhere. It is in hinges on flip top bottles, capacitors, piping systems, kettles, dishwasher safe plastic utensils and dinnerware, some ketchup bottles and yogurt and margarine tubs as well as most dairy containers that have foil lining. Rubbermaid and Sterlite products are commonly made with PP and so are plastic pails, car batteries, wastebaskets, cooler containers, dishes and pitchers. These types of items are often also made of HDPE (noted above), from which it is hard to distinguish.

WHAT’S GOOD: This material is often chosen for its resistance to corrosion and chemical leaching, its resistance to most forms of physical damage, including impact and freezing, and its ability to be joined by heat fusion rather than gluing. This makes it less likely to leach into the water supply, to be frozen into ice on the ground or to end up in the soil.

Although it is hazardous during production, PP is not known to leach any chemicals that are suspected of causing cancer or disrupting hormones.

WHAT’S BAD: The fact that it does not breakdown or disintegrate makes it a scourge in the landfill. It is there for an ETERNITY. Also, PP is marked as “#5” and is not as widely recycled as #1 and #2. This makes it a pariah for the environment.

Polystyrene (PS)

According to Wikipedia, PS is “an aromatic polymer made from the aromatic monomer styrene, a liquid hydrocarbon that is commercially manufactured from petroleum by the chemical industry. Polystyrene is one of the most widely used kinds of plastic.” This plastic is also everywhere you look and is a deadly problem.

Those of you who grew up in the 60’s and 70’s, like I did, remember the introduction of polystyrene. All of a sudden, we had plastic cutlery, foam water boards, plastic models and all kinds of styrofoam goodies. I loved styrofoam water toys because I lived on the beach. I thought it was awesome, to be truthful. Dow Chemical was making our lives better!

However, now I know how pervasive and dangerous this plastic is! Used to make foam insulation, CD “jewel” cases, smoke detector housings and anything and everything you can find made of “styrofoam”. FIY: It is also used in napalm and hydrogen bombs.

WHAT’S BAD: Unrecycled polystyrene, which IS NOT BIODEGRADABLE and has a lifespan called eternity, is often abundant in the outdoor environment, particularly along shores and waterways, and is a form of pollution. It is not easily recycled because it is so lightweight. Also when it is burned, it creates a great deal of carbon, which contributes to global warming.

Benzene is used in the production of styrofoam and is a known human carcinogen. Butadiene and styrene, also used in the manufacture, are suspected carcinogens. This makes styrofoam and other PS products toxic. Although Polystyrene can be recycled, and has the number “6” as its recycling symbol, it is energy intensive and recycling efforts are either poor or non existent. The public is not aware that it can be recycled and is not encouraged to do it.

A TINY RAY OF LIGHT: If it can be burned to create carbon, then it may be suitable as an energy source. If it is “properly incinerated at high temperatures, the only chemicals generated are water, carbon dioxide, some volatile compounds, and carbon soot. According to the American Chemistry Council, when polystyrene is incinerated in modern facilities, the final volume is 1% of the starting volume; most of the polystyrene is converted into carbon dioxide, water vapor, and heat. Because of the amount of heat released, it is sometimes used as a power source for steam or electricity generation.” This according, again, to Wikipedia. This is the only hope we might have for the huge amounts of discarded styrofoam that are already strangling our world.

For more information on the dangers of plastic, read my post on BPA .

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