We hear a lot about the impact of plastics on the environment, but unfortunately the chemicals within plastics also impact our health. Phthalates and BPA, two of the most common of these chemicals, are endocrine disruptors—affecting how key hormones are supposed to work in our bodies. Read on for more about what this means and what you can do about it.
Phthalates are plasticizers, which means they’re used to make plastics more flexible and transparent. They’re often found in personal care products (skin products), as well as toys, vinyl flooring, and even in food (and not just the packaging. Plasticizers are involved in everything from milking cows to packaging of meat and can enter food itself during these processes as a result of chemical leaching).
In the body, phthalates work like estrogen, counteracting the effects of the primary male hormone, testosterone. They also have direct anti-androgenic (male hormone) effects, negatively impacting libido, fertility, and testosterone levels. Not only that, but there appears to still be a lot we don’t know about these chemicals. One study published earlier this year in the Journal of Clinical Endocrinology & Metabolism found that phthalates lowered testosterone levels in men to different degrees depending on the types or products they were in and the men’s ages.
BPA—found in plastics, the lining of metal food containers, and even on credit card receipts—is a known endocrine disruptor. It’s classified as an obesogen, meaning it causes weight gain by disrupting normal hormone pathways involved in blood sugar and fat metabolism.
BPA has been making recent headlines, as it’s been shown to affect sperm production in men and is thought to be one of the reasons fertility rates have declined in the U.S. A review published last year described a number of studies that have proven the link between BPA exposure and low sperm counts and sperm health in animals and in men.
Alarmingly, most of us (some studies show around 98%!) have BPA in our urine, which is evidence for recent exposure. What’s extra-concerning about this is that chemicals like BPA actually affect our genes in unhealthy ways, impacting which genes get turned on and off (in a process called epigenetic alterations). That means that your past exposure to BPA impacts your children and grandchildren who—along with inheriting your genes—will inherit those disrupted signals.
What you can do
Phthalates and BPA are so pervasive it might seem impossible to shake them. But there are actually a lot of simple steps you can take to significantly reduce your exposure and markedly improve your health. Here are some tips from the Mayo Clinic for minimizing the impact of these hormonally active chemicals.
1 - Use BPA and phthalate free products as much as possible.
2 - Minimize use of canned foods (and always look for “BPA-free” on the cans you do use).
3 - Don’t leave anything in plastic in the heat. That means don’t use any plastic containers in the microwave and don’t keep plastic water bottles in a hot car. Heat increases the leaching of chemicals from plastic into whatever is inside.
4 - Instead of plastic, store food and other products in glass, porcelain, or stainless steel containers.
5 - Don’t request credit card receipts.
6 - Avoid storing fruits and vegetables in plastic bags.
7 - Bring your own coffee mug to your coffee place. Disposable cups often have a chemical-lining.
Give a few of these new habits a try for a week and see how they integrate into your day-to-day. They may seem small, but collectively, they can do a lot to reduce your exposure. Your hormones, genes, and gonads will thank you.