Plastics: The Sixth Basic Food Group — Parts 1 and 2

by Rose Marie Williams, MA
Originally published in the Townsend Letter for Doctors
Part 1:  January 1, 2001
Part 2:  February 1, 2001


Readers who saw the 1970’s film The Graduate, starring a young Dustin Hoffman undecided about a career path, may recall the scene at his graduation party where an older family friend places an arm around young “Ben” and utters, “In one word — plastics. The future, my boy, is plastics.” Three decades later, the future is here and plastics are everywhere. We are now just beginning to understand the many ways plastic chemicals can interfere with health.


Phthalates are synthetic chemicals commonly found in inks, adhesives, vinyl floor coverings, some paints, and most plastic, including food wrap. Phthalates are plasticizers used to make plastic products more flexible. Their effects on human health is increasingly coming into question.

The offspring of female rats exposed to phthalates demonstrated a variety of abnormalities. “Most striking were their effects as androgen (male hormone) blockers in male offspring, which included a reduction of testosterone levels and abnormalities in the male reproductive tract.” [1]

A higher risk of miscarriage was observed among women exposed to high levels of phthalates. [2]


Researchers at the University of Missouri have been studying the effects of hormone disrupting chemicals that leach out of plastic products. Bisphenol-A, an ingredient in the lining of metal food cans, polycarbonate water jugs, and dental sealants applied to children’s teeth, was found to alter the development of male reproductive organs in mouse studies using amounts comparable to what humans currently ingest. [3]

Dental Sealants

Coating children’s teeth with bisphenol-A to prevent dental caries is being done by ever increasing numbers of dentists around the country. Meanwhile, researchers in Spain have found this substance to be an estrogen mimic which could cause cancer.

Closer to home, researchers at Tufts School of Medicine found saliva from bisphenol-A treated patients to be estrogenic. Ignoring the research data, the American Dental Association continues to defend the practice. [4]

Of Mice and Men

Male mice whose mothers were exposed to bisphenol-A in doses as low as two parts per billion showed changes that would result in permanently enlarged prostate glands. When doses were increased to 20 parts per billion, a permanent 20% decrease in daily sperm production was observed. [5] The unanswered questions is — what role has exposure to plastic chemicals played in human prostate problems, fertility problems, birth defects and cancer?

Sugar, Cream and Styrene

Styrofoam cups and meat trays do more than keep your coffee hot and your meat neatly packaged. Nearly as pervasive as the coffee break itself, white “plastic” or “foam” styrene cups outgas toxic chemicals into the coffee. As endocrine disrupters they are increasingly suspected of contributing to breast cancer, prostate cancer, thyroid and other glandular problems. [8]

One study of fat biopsies from human subjects conducted by the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) found styrene residues in 100% of the samples tested. Fat in humans and other mammals serves as a storage site for many toxic chemicals which bioaccumulate over time, leaching out many years later causing damage to cancer protecting genes. [7] If more money were put into this area of cancer study instead of additional ways to use chemotherapy and radiation, we might make some headway in understanding cancer causation and prevention.

Meat and cheese on styrene trays wrapped in clear plastic easily absorb lipid-loving chemicals from the packaging materials. Chemicals from styrene trays and some brands of plastic wrap easily migrate into foods with a high fat content. Removing foods from these packaging materials immediately after purchasing is recommended.

As for the office coffee break ritual, substituting styrofoam cups with washable ceramic mugs is both environmentally friendly and a good pro-health choice.

Placticizers in Plastic Wrap Migrate

Plasticizers in some plastic wraps have been shown to migrate into fatty foods such as meat and cheese. Of seven brands tested by Consumer Reports, Reynolds Wrap and Saran Wrap contained some of the five plasticizers being tested. Studies indicate some plasticizers migrate into food at the point of contact, even during refrigeration. [8]

Some cheese wrapped in plastic was found to contain as high as 50 to 160 parts per million of the adipate plasticizer, DEHA. Waxed cheese with clear plastic overwrap was found to have 1 to 4 parts per million of the common phthalate, DEHP. [9]

Consumers may wish to rewrap store bought cheese with waxed paper, or buy cheese cut to order at a deli and ask to have it wrapped in waxed paper.

Microwaveable Plastics

Concerned consumers may wish to avoid using plastic containers and plastic wrap in the microwave. Manufacturers advertise the plastic containers as “microwave safe,” but this in no way guarantees the food is safe when heated in plastic. Dr. Carlos Sonnenschien of the Tufts University School of Medicine has been studying the problem of chemical migration from plastics for over two decades and strongly recommends substituting glass or ceramic ware for microwave use.

Dr. Sonnenschein and his colleague, Dr. Ana Soto first became aware of this problem when studying blood samples that appeared to have been contaminated with a substance that caused an estrogenic effect in the blood cells. After checking and rechecking every possible source of contamination they concluded estrogen mimicking chemicals were leaching out of the new variety of plastic vials in which the blood was stored.

Plastic Lined Cans

An increasing array of foods are being marketed in plastic lined cans. Most recently I was surprised to find pumpkin, beets, chick peas and chopped clams packed in plastic lined cans, with no label information giving any clue.

The biggest shock, however, came from a purchase at a local health food store. Muir Glen “organic” tomatoes are also packed in plastic lined cans. A close inspection of the Muir Glen label revealed a sentence indicating the contents were “packed in lead-free white enamel-lined cans.” There was no mention of plastic or bisphenol-A on the label. However, an inquiry to the company brought forth some interesting information.

An explanation of the difference between “white-enamel” and plastic lining was requested. The response letter of 4/19/00 from Muir Glen Organic Co. reads as follows:

Thank you for sharing your concerns regarding bisphenol-A in can linings. We are aware of the controversy surrounding this issue, and have conversed with both our can manufacturer and the National Food Processors Association of which we are a member, on the use of bisphenol-A. Muir Glen will continue to monitor this situation, through both our can manufacturer and the NFPA. If you have any further questions, please feel free to telephone us at 1-800-832-6345.


Susan Leonard

The response failed to explain the difference between “white-enamel” and plastic. In fact, it did not even mention “white-enamel.” It did mention bisphenol-A and even included a printout sheet titled, “The National Food Processors Association position on bisphenol-A,” which offered the following explanation:

“Most scientific authorities agree that there is no need for public health concern about cans lined with epoxy coatings to help preserve their contents… (T)he topic of estrogen/hormone mimickers is a new and open scientific question, upon which there is little consensus…. The NFPA has conducted independent research on the migration of bisphenol-A from metal food containers into various foods and beverages…and they believe the FDA will conclude that any potential migration of these substances would have no health significance.”

A phone call to the Muir Glen 800 number was made to express disappointment about organic food being packed in plastic lined cans. Ms. Leonard informed this writer that Muir Glen Organic Food Co. is now owned by General Mills, and that “enamel” was used “to avoid the tinny taste.” Ms. Leonard was quite clueless about the entire concept of organic foods and it became apparent that the conversation was going no place.

Agitated by the unwholesomeness of the whole mess, an email was sent to Sarah Johnston, Executive Director of the Northeast Organic Farming Association of New York, asking about organic requirements for packaging and plastic lined cans. Ms. Johnston replied that the American Organic Standards do not deal with potential leaching of packaging materials into foods. Agreeing that this is a serious issue, however, she promised to look into it further.

“Plastics — An Important Part of Your Healthy Diet”

So claims a full-page advertisement from the American Plastics Council in a National Geographic, 2000 Magazine, suggesting that plastics could be thought of as “the sixth basic food group.” “Oh, you certainly wouldn’t eat them, but plastic packaging does help protect our food in many ways,” assures the ad.


Granted, plastic delays spoilage. However, we are indeed “eating” plastic chemicals. Unbeknown to most consumers, many foods leach chemicals from plastic packaging materials and plastic microwave containers. In addition, children are being exposed to chemicals in plastic baby bottles, teething rings, and plastic toys. Perhaps plastic truly has become the sixth basic food group, after all.

Chemical Industry & Health Advocates Spar

The Nov/Dec 1999 issue of Mother Jones Magazine letters section featured what amounted to a verbal sparring match between Courtney M. Price, VP, Chemstar Chemical Manufacturers Association of Arlington, Virginia, and Jon R. Luoma. Mr. Luoma authored an article titled, “System Failure,” which appeared in the July/Aug. issue of Mother Jones.

Ms. Price attacked Mr. Luoma for implying that all phthalates are endocrine disrupters, which she indicated is wrong, and jabbed him for mentioning a “flurry of studies” on phthalates, which she claimed did not exist. Mr. Luoma countered these attacks by indicating each of Ms. Price’s jabs was “an obfuscation or an outright error.”

He defended his position by qualifying the “flurry” of studies showed “endocrine disrupter effects on the male reproductive system,” and that “phthalates did their damage as anti-androgens, blocking testosterone,” and thus “inducing feminization symptoms in male lab rats.” [10]

The stakes are high on both sides, and undoubtedly, the scientific controversy and the verbal sparring will heat up, while those suffering the greatest blows will be the uninformed consumers.

(1.) Lee, John, R, MD, The John R. Lee, MD, Medical Letter, Phoenix, AZ, Jan., 2000.
(2.) Ibid.
(3.) World Wildlife Fund Magazine, “Chemicals That Compromise Life: A Call to Action,” Wash., DC, 1998.
(4.) Citizen’s Petition Newsletter, Amherst, NH, Summer/Fall 1998.
(5.) World Wildlife Fund Magazine, Chemicals That Compromise Life: A Call to Action,” Wash., DC, 1998.
(6.) Rogers, Sherri, MD, Total Wellness Newsletter, Syracuse, NY, July, 2000.
(7.) Ibid.
(8.) Consumer Reports Magazine, “Your Health,” June, 1998.
(9.) Ibid.
(10.) Mother Jones Magazine, “Letters Section,” Nov/Dec. 1999.

PART 2:  Health Risks and Environmental Issues

“Plastics — An Important Part of Your Healthy Diet,” touts the American Plastics Council in a full-page ad in National Geographic 2000 Magazine, suggesting that plastics could be thought of as “the 6th basic food group.” “Oh, you certainly wouldn’t eat them, but plastic packaging does help protect our food supply,” continues the message. Could there be a little tongue in cheek here on the part of industry scientists? Truth be told, we are indeed eating plastic chemicals, as well as inhaling them and absorbing them through our skin.

Plastics in the Diet

American children are consuming an average of 5.8 milligrams of the phthalate plasticizer, DEHP, per day. This comes from food stored in plastic wrap, water stored in plastic containers, toys, teethers, and baby bottles. Phthalates are even found in the inks used to print on plastic, cardboard and foil, and can leach through the wrapping material into the food. [1]

Being fat-soluble these chemicals are easily absorbed from plastic packaging materials and concentrate in high fat foods, such as dairy products including cheese, butter, margarine, as well as meat products. People consuming large quantities of these foods may also be ingesting large amounts of phthalates. A word of caution — many organic foods, including cheese, are wrapped in plastic packaging materials. Whereas special order cheese cut at a deli counter is often wrapped in waxed paper.

Consumer Reports tested several brands of plastic wrap and found DEHP in Reynolds Wrap and Saran Wrap, but not in plastic wrap by America’s Choice, Duane Reade, Foodtown, Glad Crystal, Clear Polyethylene and White Rose. [2]

Plastics Everywhere

Phthalates have become the most abundant synthetic chemical in our environment. Used as a softener in plastic products they can be found in building materials, carpet backing, vinyl tile, covering on wires and cables, garden hoses, tool handles, automobile undercoating, artificial leather, dishwasher baskets, flea collars, insect repellents, skin creams, hair sprays, perfumes, nail polish, notebook covers, toys, teethers, baby bottles, blood bags, and other medical devices, in addition to food wrap and food packaging. [2]

The plastic industry produces over a billion pounds of phthalates yearly, and spends millions of dollars advertising their safety and usefulness. Health and environmental advocates have been arguing for years that plastics are neither safe, nor necessary. New studies are beginning to shed light on how serious and pervasive a health risk they pose, and how easily the chemicals are absorbed, ingested, and inhaled.

Plastics Pose Health Risks

Phthalates, added to polyvinyl chloride (PVC) products to make them more pliable, have been implicated in several recent studies as causing birth defects, damage to the reproductive system, kidneys, and heart of lab mice and rats. [4]

The primary phthalates in soft vinyl toys are di-isononyl phthalate (DINP) and di(2-ethylhexyl) phthalate (DEHP). DEHP is considered a “probable human carcinogen” by the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Some phthalates in the bloodstream mimic female hormones, while others interfere with male hormones leading to birth defects and sexual abnormalities.

DEHP is increasingly being replaced by DINP, about which less information is known. Its toxicity, however, is well enough established to warrant labels on vials of DINP warning researchers that the chemical may cause cancer, is harmful if swallowed, or spilled on skin. [5]

CDC Findings

An ongoing twenty-year study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has consistently found higher levels of phthalates in American adults than had been expected. [6] Researchers tested urine from 289 adults and found that commonly encountered phthalates “float in peoples’ bodies… at low levels.” [7]

This was no surprise to health advocates who have been arguing for a long time that phthalates used in toys and medical equipment are dangerous.

Plastics and Breast Cancer Cells

Plastics, used in thousands of everyday products from food wrap to pesticides, have been found to leach endocrine disrupting chemicals into the bodies of unsuspecting consumers of all ages.

Some 30 years ago Doctors Ana Soto and Carlos Sonnenschien at Tufts University, School of Medicine, were among the first scientists to find thaendocrine disrupting chemicals leached from plastic test tubes. After performing numerous tests they found the hormone mimicking chemicals leaching from plastic test tubes caused rampant proliferation of breast cancer cells. An experiment at Stanford University School of Medicine found similar results from chemicals leaching from plastic water jugs. [8]

The EPA’s Endocrine Disrupter Screening and Testing Advisory Committee (EDSTAC) has been looking into this for two years, but thus far has provided the American public with very little information. [9]

Women of Child-Bearing Age

Not only are there high levels of phthalates among Americans in general, but CDC chemist, John Brock, found that “women of child-bearing age (20-40) had 50% higher phthalates than average.” [10]

Some phthalates known to cause birth defects in laboratory animals are commonly found in perfumes, nail polish, and hair sprays — products widely used by this age group — and which “can be absorbed through the lungs….” [11]

Referring to the high levels of phthalates found in young women, “That’s not where you want them, when dealing with compounds that cause birth defects,” stated Paul M.D. Foster of the Chemical Industry Institute of Toxicology. [12]

Taking a stand on behalf of public health, the Environmental Health Network of California has petitioned the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to require labeling of perfumes that contain toxic phthalates such as Calvin Klein’s Eternity. [13]

Baby Girls in Puerto Rico

A major study investigating premature breast development (precocious thelarche) among thousands of girls in Puerto Rico under the age of two has produced some interesting findings. Eight of every 1000 baby girls, nearly 1%, have been diagnosed with this condition.

Scientists carefully eliminated several possible risk factors such as hormones in meat, pharmaceutical factory smoke, insecticides and estrogenic chemicals in formula. Twenty years of research now suggests that phthalates may be contributing to the epidemic. [14]

Thirty-five of 41 girls affected, showed phthalates in their blood, versus only seven out of 35 in a control group. The affected group showed 450 p/p/b (parts per billion) as opposed to only 70 p/p/b in the control group. [15]

“Most of the phthalates found in the Puerto Rican infants were di-(2-ethylhexyl), or DEHP, a softening agent in polyvinyl chloride (PVC) products. DEHP is among the most widely used phthalates, and is considered the most potent.” [16]

It is believed the contamination levels of the girls in Puerto Rico is extremely high because the island imports huge quantities of commercial foods packaged in phthalate-containing plastics. In addition, Puerto Rico has a hot and humid climate making air conditioning very desirable. Unfortunately, it seems that air conditioning traps airborne phthalates inside homes and public buildings. [17]

“Barbies” Linked to Early Puberty

It was bad enough that Mattel’s Barbie dolls with exaggerated female proportions set a standard which young girls hoped to achieve. For decades researchers have been concerned about the psychological impact of the “Barbie” body on the development of young girls. Everything from anorexia to breast implants have been associated with the “Barbie” influence among young females in our society.

Now comes an even greater threat. According to recent research, phthalates leaching out of old Barbie dolls may disrupt hormone development. [18] For over 30 years young girls have spent hours playing with Barbie dolls. Younger siblings preferred chewing on the plastic dolls, just as they would chew on any chewable plastic toy.

Researchers fear this may be another contributing factor to early puberty among females growing up in our culture. Industry responds by claiming there is no absolute evidence, and that more studies are needed, but is often reluctant to provide the funding necessary for additional studies.

Baby Bottles & Teethers

Pacifiers and baby bottle nipples are mostly made of latex or silicone, neither product under suspicion at this time. Phthalate softeners, however, are frequently found in teething items and baby bottles made from polycarbonate, a clear and rigid plastic.

Consumer Reports’ researchers found bisphenol-A leached from plastic baby bottles into infant formula when heated, and advises consumers to avoid polycarbonate baby bottles until more is known about their possible effects on babies. [19]

Glass bottles or opaque bottles (duller plastic, often colored) made of polyethylene do not leach phthalates (Frazer). Gerber and Evenflo voluntarily took phthalates out of vinyl and baby care products and Hasbro stopped making teethers and rattles. However, NYPIRG (New York Public Interest Research Group) cautions parents about buying old Hasbro products, such as Teeth ‘n’ Toy Soft Animal Teether Assortment, Disney Babies Teether ‘n’ Travel, or Babies Hold ‘n’ Soothe Teether. [21]

Children’s Toys

Since 1996 Greenpeace has steadfastly raised public awareness about the hazards of toxic chemical additives in polyvinyl chloride (PVC) plastic toys because phthalate plasticizers leach into children’s mouths when toys are chewed or sucked. The chemicals are “free-floating,” and can “offgas,” or evaporate from soft PVC products in the home and bind to airborne particles such as dust, and increase children’s exposure. [22]

Several retailers including Toys ‘R’ Us and Kmart are removing the offending plastic toys from their stores. Mattel has decided to phase out non-renewable petroleum based plastics in favor of materials derived from edible and plant starches. [23]

Ten countries, including Germany, France, Sweden, and Mexico have either banned or restricted these products. Some companies such as IKEA, Lego, and Nike have initiated a phase out of PVC toys. Though an “emergency ban” on soft PVC toys proposed by the European Union has been delayed, Greenpeace believes the proposal may serve to pressure American toy manufacturers to take action.

Despite the fact that some phthalates in the bloodstream mimic female hormones, while others interfere with male hormones leading to birth defects and altered sexual development, US regulators have failed to impose regulatory guidelines on industry. Instead, the US government has relied solely on voluntary actions by toy companies to eliminate the use of PVC and its toxic additives in children’s toys. [24]

Plastics Interfere with Sperm Production

CDC scientist, John Brock, reveals that phthalates are dangerous in several ways. They kill cells that produce sperm, verifying a 30-year decline in sperm production by men in industrialized countries (1.5% drop per year). Phthalates have induced cases of undescended testicles in lab animals. [25] As estrogen mimickers they may also play a role in testicular cancer. [26] Both problems are increasing in the male population.

“Phthalates have the potential to disrupt boys’ reproductive development,” according to a recent report from the National Toxicology Program’s Center for the Evaluation of Risks to Human Reproduction (CERHR), a division of the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences in Research Triangle Park, NC. [27]

Greenpeace Emphasizes Prevention

Industry’s immediate reaction to negative health claims about any class of products, be it PCBs or phthalates, is to charge that insufficient proof exists and that more studies are needed. Instead of providing the funds required to carry out the necessary studies, industry prefers to invest millions of dollars in advertising and lobbying. Government regulation is often hampered by budget cuts, staff reduction, political and corporate influence.

Public health issues are often better represented by non-governmental consumer organizations. GREENPEACE is one of these watchdog groups that has maintained a consistent, often controversial, position in exposing abusers of public and environmental health.

As taxpayers we have very little say as to whether our money is spent to promote public interests, or corporate interests. Those who wish to promote public health issues can make a contribution to the Greenpeace “Anti-Toxics Action Campaign,” 1436 U. Street, NW, Washington, DC 20009. GREENPEACE advises consumers to avoid using plastic products that are known to contain phthalates, while it continues its campaign to have these hazardous chemicals removed from the marketplace.


(1.) Frazer, Phillip, New studies blame plastics for sexual abnormalities, News On Earth, Oct. 2000 3:10, NY.
(2.) Ibid.
(3.) Ibid.
(4.) Pennybacker, Mindy, Teething on Toxics, GREENPEACE May/June 2000.
(5.) Ibid.
(6.) Frazer, Phillip, New studies blame plastics for sexual abnormalities, News On Earth, Oct. 2000 3:10, NY.
(7.) CDC study finds everyday chemicals absorbed by body, Poughkeepsie Journal, Sept. 2, 2000, Poughkeepsie, NY.
(8.) Risk of Plastics to be Evaluated, Choices, The Newsletter of the Ithaca Breast Cancer Alliance, No.17, Winter 1999, Ithaca, NY.
(9.) Ibid.
(10.) Fraser, Phillip, New studies blame plastics for sexual abnormalities, News On Earth, Oct. 2000 3:10, NY.
(11.) Ibid.
(12.) CDC study finds everyday chemicals absorbed by body, Poughkeepsie Journal, Sept. 2, 2000, Poughkeepsie, NY.
(13.) Frazer, Phillip, New studies blame plastics for sexual abnormalities, News On Earth, Oct. 2000 3:10, NY.
(14.) Ibid.
(15.) Ibid.
(16.) Ibid.
(17.) Ibid.
(18.) Aging Barbies may ooze chemicals, threaten health, The Times-Herald Record, Aug. 24, 2000, Middletown, NY.
(19.) Your Health, Consumer Reports, June, 1998.
(20.) Fraser, Phillip, New studies blame plastics far sexual abnormalities, News On Earth, Oct. 2000 3:10, NY.
(21.) Pennybacker, Mindy, Teething on Toxics, GREENPEACE, May/June 2000.
(22.) Ibid.
(23.) Ibid.
(24.) Toxics Toys Update, GREENPEACE, Winter 1999.
(25.) Frazer, Phillip, New studies blame plastics for sexual abnormalities, News On Earth, Oct. 2000 3:10, NY.
(26.) Chemicals That Compromise Life: A Call to Action, World Wildlife Fund Issue Brief, Sept. 1998.
(27.) Frazer, Phillip, New studies blame plastics for sexual abnormalities, News On Earth, Oct. 2000 3:10, NY.

Article originally from Townsend Letter for Doctors and Patients.